In high school, Amy Merrill wanted to be a pop country singer. She didn’t necessarily expect to accumulate a decade of experience in nonprofit management and cofound an impact travel company that already has more than 500 alumni—but she did. Journey was founded last year, and like other social impact endeavors, aims to give back while being aware of sustainability, local needs, and the limitations of volunteering itself. For trips that last between six and nine days, Journeyers immerse themselves in service by working alongside local volunteers and completing a project; then, they immerse themselves in the place. But Journey isn’t exactly like every impact travel company we’ve heard of, either. We spoke with Merrill about what Journey tackles at home and abroad and how it’s changing the travel landscape.
How was Journey born?
“Journey started in January 2016 with my friend and colleague Taylor Conroy, who had founded a fund-raising platform that also allowed donors to go see the results of their contributions. We met during my work on anti–sex trafficking. In working on those issues, I found that people wanted to get more involved. My stock answer when people asked was to give money, educate themselves, and raise awareness, but that wasn’t satisfying for anyone. This led to our ‘a-ha’ moment. We saw an opportunity to create travel experiences that brought people into the heart of the work.
“We started doing trips alongside partner nonprofits and added a few more days we called ‘integration,’ which allowed time to process and reflect. That was a schedule of meditation, yoga, mindfulness, activities like hiking or surfing to bring yourself back into your body, and group conversations. We found it was a better way to experience personal growth in a new place with new friends. Now Journey has grown to one or two trips a month mostly focused on Central America, but we’re testing other areas. The Journey always has the same model: a couple of days of impact work followed by a couple days of integration. The point with any Journey is not to solve the problem in six days but to ignite questions and conversations and give a safe space to do this work.”
What kind of projects does Journey do?
“We mainly do home builds and school renovations. For home builds, we partner with Techo. They organize the build, resources, and local volunteers, and those two days are mind-blowing. You are in it—camping in a local municipal building and doing really physically challenging work. If all goes well, by the end of the weekend you’ve built a new home.
“The second project is a school makeover with Glasswing International. We typically renovate a primary school top to bottom—clean, paint, garden, redo the playground, all alongside community members and other volunteers, and there’s a celebration at the end with the kids.”
What steps do you take to make sure you make a positive and long-lasting impact on the community?
“We don’t want to say what’s needed—we don’t know. That’s why we always partner with a nonprofit: We want to defer to world-class organizations to make those judgment calls. We know when we go home, they’ll be there to support the community.
“Journey also looks at the funding needed for the project. We don’t want to be a burden on the nonprofit—we know that we have to fund it if we want to do it. We commit that up front, and it comes in through a variety of sources: crowdfunding, ticket sales, donors, and sponsors.”
This year you’ll be doing your first domestic Journey. What was the impetus for staying stateside?
“The truth is that there is work to be done here and there are places to go that are much different from your day-to-day. Hawaii came together as a collaboration with a yoga teacher named Eoin Finn and a nonprofit doing reforestation work. There’s a ton of erosion happening that’s human-caused. The impact is also about the importance of the reefs—they really are the heartbeat of the ocean.
“Our second domestic trip will be to South Dakota. It’ll be co-led by a musician named Brett Dennen. That came together by the need for more understanding and attention on native rights in the States, especially a place like Pineridge Reservation in South Dakota. It has an extremely high unemployment rate and incredible challenges that you have to dive into to understand. So we’ve been working with a nonprofit there started by a member of the Sioux tribe to improve a communal area of the reservation so that it’s a healthier, more positive place.”
What do people do after their Journey?
“It takes all shapes and forms. I’ve seen people quit smoking, quit their jobs, start volunteering, start giving money, go on more Journeys. It really does serve as an entry point for people to experience this kind of thinking. From there it’s personal.”