Rob Chilton, 34, suffered a fate that's the stuff of unemployment nightmares. He was laid off not once but twice from his job as a celebrity magazine editor. While he was reinstated two weeks after the first blow in January 2009, he was let go again in April. "It was an emotional rollercoaster to say the least," he says.
Not only did the double-layoff mean he had to deal with all of those emotions twice, but since he's British, he had to move from New York City, where he'd been for four years, to his native England. "My visa was attached to my job, so no job meant no visa," he says. "Moving back to England was tough; it felt like I was leaving a really great party way too early." While he worked briefly at a magazine in London, his heart wasn't in it, and he felt lost.
The next thing he knew he was researching volunteer programs online.
"I know this sounds like a cheesy line a life coach might say, but after working in celebrity magazines for 12 years, I wanted to do something 'real,'" he says. "Volunteering was a way for me to feel good about myself again. Plus, I wanted to get away from cities, noise and crowds, the Internet and cell phones. I wanted to give my brain a jolt of electricity."
Ultimately, he chose Global Vision International as his volunteer organization. "Their website was excellent, they had dozens of projects all over the world, and they seemed really serious about doing some good."
He filled out an online form and got an acceptance call a few days later. He signed up for 8 weeks doing Elephant-Human Relation Aid in Namibia, Africa, which cost about $3000, and booked a flight to the location for $1450.
And then he was off to Africa, where he and his team alternated between building walls around water tanks to stop elephants from destroying them and driving through the desert tracking and observing elephant behavior.
"Sitting there in total silence, dead still, watching elephants from 6 feet away was awe-inspiring," he says. "And to start building from scratch and stand back at the end of the week to see a wall was very rewarding. The scenery, the colors, the people, the campsites, cooking over an open fire every night, sleeping outdoors-not even in a tent-being in the fresh air 24 hours a day for 8 weeks was bliss."
Rob returned to the traffic and hectic pace of England just before Christmas, proud of his volunteer effort and how it had surpassed expectations. "I felt like I had achieved something and acquired more skills at the same time. I proved to myself that I could camp outdoors, meet lots of new people, work hard in the desert.... and not fall apart!"
The experience also taught him he's not quite ready to rejoin the rat race. "Three weeks after I got back, I started planning my round-the-world trip"-an epic journey in which he'll travel from Hong Kong to Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, and finally South Africa, with a 4-week stop to volunteer with kids in HIV-affected areas of Zambia. "I have no wife, kids or mortgage, so I thought it was the right time to use this freedom and travel."
What happens after that remains to be seen, but Rob's considering teaching, working with a nonprofit, learning about radio journalism ... or maybe even going back to magazines. And despite being unemployed, his drive has only increased. "I keep thinking of that Woody Allen line in Annie Hall about how sharks have to keep moving forward in order to stay alive," he says. "To paraphrase Mr. Allen, I don't want to end up a dead shark."
Inspired to follow in Rob's footsteps and use your unemployment for the good of others (and yourself)? Here are a few volunteer programs to get you started.
• Global Vision International runs community and conservation initiatives ranging from one week to 2 years in more than 40 countries around the world.
• Serve.gov, the government's volunteering website, compiles a host of opportunities near and far, short and long-term, as well as giving you the chance to create your own.
• All for Good features more than 100,000 listings of volunteer projects from nonprofits, companies, self-organized groups, and individuals. Recruit volunteers for your own project or sign up to help with someone else's.
• VolunteerMatch connects people and projects, and is the main recruiting tool for more than 75,000 nonprofit organizations.
• VolunteerAbroad allows you to search from a wide array of countries, regions, and types of volunteer work.