The Call to Serve: For two Wisconsin Women, Travel and Volunteerism Work Together

Karlee Mikkelson spends time with an orphan in El Salvador.

For some, the travel bug bites early, and hard. And with it comes a fever that compels the journey-woman to seek out more than distant lands and serene beaches. For her, travel is less about new places than it is about opportunities to serve, to help others who through circumstance and birthplace alone face a lifetime that is very different.

For two young women from the Coulee Region, the desire for service-based travel started in school. For both, classroom presentations spoke to them on a deep level, and as a result, changed the course their lives. And what they learned was service-based travel enabled them to see the world in a very different way, while seeing their own lives with new eyes, as well.

Peace Corps service in Nicaragua

When Michaela Ross was 12 years old, she was stunned by teacher’s presentation about servinging the Peace Corps in Africa. Years later, when working toward an undergraduate minor in Spanish, she decided to study abroad in Spain. That trip only whetted her appetite to see the world. “When I graduated from college, I knew I wanted to go into the Peace Corps.” After a lengthy application process, and working about 70 hours a week to save money, she accepted placement as a small business development volunteer in Nicaragua. She was 24 years old.

In my site with Nicaraguan friend Lya

During her two-year Peace Corps commitment, she provided entrepreneurship training to both students and teachers (so they could continue teaching the course) and small business consulting, and as a passion project, she worked with the deaf youth population in Nicaragua, helping them to learn basic communications skills and improve their likelihood of self-sufficiency.

Working with a deaf youth for Manos Unidos

Ross says upon her arrival, she experienced culture shock almost immediately. She was sitting, overlooking her host family’s backyard, as their tattered clothes hung drying, and scrawny chickens ran across the dirt-packed ground.

My host family's patio (chickens not shown)

“The poverty was just so raw. In that moment I was terrified,” she explained. “But then, you acclimate. In the Peace Corps, one thing you learn very quickly and that you carry with you the rest of your life is that the human body and spirit can adapt to virtually anything.”

That’s just one of many lessens Ross learned during her time in Nicaragua, lessons which she is eager to share with others considering service-based travel. Also among them, is understanding that often, people don’t need your help. “You have to realize that you are simply there to work alongside people who want to work with you. Even if you have good intentions, be open to the fact that they may actually not need what your perspective thinks they need.” Ross says the most successful initiatives look at what the community wants, what volunteers can offer, and what resources will allow.

The other important lesson she wants to share is to be present in the moment, when serving in a developing nation. “In the U.S. we often miss the opportunity to connect with people around us at a level at which people in third world countries don’t miss. And I think it’s a beautiful thing that a lot of travelers and service volunteers would experience.”

Signing the name Michaela at our new rural deaf class in my site

Ross returned home in April of this year, after fracturing her back in an accident in Nicaragua. After months of physical therapy, her back brace has been removed. Yet her experience in Nicaragua continues to inspire and strengthen her. She plans to move to New York this fall, and continues to work with Manos Unidas, an organization which assists deaf children in Nicaragua receive an education to help ensure a more financially-stable future.

Volunteering at an El Salvador Orphanage


For Westby-native Karlee Mikkelson, it was Spanish class epiphany that changed her life. She realized she didn’t want to be one of the people who said they wished they had traveled. Instead, she wanted to go as soon as possible.

That’s how, at the age of 18, she found herself volunteering in an orphanage in El Salvador. With the support of her parents, she researched options. She knew two things: she wanted to work with a smaller organization—so that she wouldn’t be just a number, and if she went to a third world country, she wanted to help. She found an Ohio-based organization which placed her as a volunteer at Love and Hope Children’s Home in Los Planes de Renderos, El Salvador. The home provides safety, food and housing to children who are orphaned, abused, abandoned or neglected.


“When I first got there, all the kids ran up to me…it was insane to see how they didn’t have anything, but they are happy with everything. It was a pretty hard realization.” Over the course of three months of helping with everything from studying to caring for special needs children, Mikkelson forged strong bonds with the children, and they rapidly became the most importand aspect of her stay. “I spent three months trying to change their lives, better them and volunteer my time to grant them a better future. And it was the complete opposite. I left and knew they didn’t need me to better them, but they had bettered me.”


She remembers her last night at the home, when one by one, the children said in rudimentary English, “I doved you.” (sic) To this day, the kids remain an inspiration to her, one which will compel her to volunteer for the rest of her life, she says.




Upon her return home, Mikkelson spoke before the Westby Spanish language students about her experience. “I stressed to all of them that, of course, traveling isn’t for everyone, and going out the country isn’t for everyone. But it’s important to try to get out of your comfort zone. I think that’s the biggest thing for me, because I would have never been able to find myself, if I hadn’t lost myself.”


Even though she hopes to travel to the area again, Mikkelson says the experience also solidified her love for the Coulee Region. “I learned that when I have a family, I want to raise them in this area. It’s the greatest place to grow up.”

To learn more about opportunities for volunteerism and philanthropy with the organizations mentioned in this story, go to:

Peace Corps application process:

Manos Unidas:

Love and Hope Children’s Home:

This story was originally printed in Coulee Region Women magazine, and is reprinted here with permission. 

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