My Layoff Landed Me in Africa

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., 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.

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What a great story. I have met a lot of people in my travels abroad who are traveling because they lost their jobs. Thanks for sharing these great resources to find great volunteer opportunities! If anyone is interested in volunteering and discovering South America and practicing Spanish at the same time, I'd recommend volunteering with Vive Peru. There are opportunities in various cities of Peru in health, education, social work, music and engineering.

September 18 2011 at 12:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

James, I'm a former USAF Vet. You sound like a a Guy who was in love with a service man and found out he did not Roll that way. Serving my country was a Honor. I did not learn Racism or malice. I bet you never steped up to the plate for your counrty but you enjoy the freedom of speech everyday. I'm glad this county is not full of James because if it was... German would be the native toungue.

February 04 2010 at 6:38 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Happy for you contradiction, and glad to see things worked out for you...and trust me, luck has more to do with your situation then you want to admit. If hard work was all it took, I would be a billionaire 10 times over, sorry but try that with someone who doesn't see and understand reality. I was not, and am not a party-er..I also have a college degree. You use brick, but from what I am seeing, sounds more like glass. Thanks for the response though, good to see vets that got something out of there military experience other then racism and malice.

February 03 2010 at 11:52 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Hey Guys... it was just a little advice from someone who got laid off after 17 Years with the same company. I had a sales Job at MFG company. The summers had no AC and it was a unhealthy work work envirorment. It was far from a Bank. The Job I have now is sales again but a better company. Lets see if this place last 17 Years!

February 03 2010 at 10:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This article is geared towards those relatively young, single people
in their twenties and thirties, who have at least a bachelor's degree
from an accredited university and have parents who are still young
enough to work and hand over their hard earned dollars to junior or
their young princess. Eventually, though, the parents money will run
out. If junior or the princess becomes incapcitated by a serious,
life-threatening, chronic disease and finds oneself back home like in
the United States, reality will hit them hard. By the way, it is no
surprise that many young Americans are now becoming so-called
"terrorists" abroad to fight the American military and American
interests abroad. The American system and society has betrayed these
young people. Who the hell ever heard of charging at least $50,000
per year for a lousy bachelor's degree? No other civilized, western
country mistreats its young like the Americans. Instead of giving
your tax dollars to the wealthy bankers, corporations, and Wall
Street, you should be taking back those tax dollars for yourselves,
your neighbors, and your young by creating a social net for the
unemployed, by financing the universities to enable those, who are
capable, to study and build a brighter future for this country, to
finace the teaching university hospitals to find cures for your
diseases, to pay for your health care and those of your neighbors, so
you don't have to be surrounded by a bunch of sick, overweight,
mentally ill lunatics in your very midst. Everyone is angry and
miserable, lashing out at each other instead of going after the real
culprits. It is obvious that the American people can no longer rely
on elected and appointed officials. It is time that the American
people take back their government and their country. By shutting
down the country for several months, the American people can
emasculate the corporations and especially Wall Street. Not too long
ago, the French shut down their country for three weeks, when their
job security was threatened. The problem in America is too severe
for just a three-week shutdown. The country needs to be shut down
like the Polish did back in the 1980s for several months. Of course,
police, firemen, doctors, and hospitals will be exempt from this
strike. Neighbors and those within your immediate community will
have to organize to take care of everyone's needs during these most
crucial, important, historic several months. It is time to take back
our government and our country. No longer should the miscreants take
our money and kill us and our children! Shut down this goddamn mess
once and for all -- and take back what is rightfully yours! This is
your government and your country -- not theirs! Shut down the
country and you will shut down their pyramid scheme of robbing you to
make the rich miscreants richer. Shut their malfeasance down once and
for all and take back your government and country!

February 03 2010 at 9:48 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Good on you Rob, instead of sitting at home just surviving in the 9 to 5 ratrace, you got off your ass, got out of your "comfort zone" and went off to do something worthwhile. If more people did what you did, even for a short while, the world might be a much better place.

February 03 2010 at 9:14 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

This is an amazing story. people are already asking how he is paying for this or that, Who cares, if he is not worried why should anyone else be. Maybe he did something smart when he was making good money, like SAVING consistently. This epic is not for everyone but their are at least 100 people who fit the catagory that will read this story, but choose to remain in their own pity party and remain unemployed. This man showed true faith and courage and I willing to bet he would not trade all of his days in glitsey New York, for one daythat he spent doing something that most of us never really do which is getting to know who we really are.

February 03 2010 at 4:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Yes there are funds to help a volunteer volunteer if you have no money. But they won't pay your bills, rent, and mortgage or feed your family so you can do it. It's good to volunteer and help people and causes. We should all give something back somewhere sometime. So good for him that he is able to drop everything and has the money to go wherever. But even the biggest hearts need to have either a big wallet or no one else to worry about in order to volunteer other then locally maybe. I would volunteer somewhere in the world if someone would pay my bills and mortgage, and feed my family.

February 03 2010 at 3:22 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wish him the very best.

February 03 2010 at 3:01 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I wonder why he had to leave because of his visa problems while this country is so full of illegals with NO visa at all. I'm happy he found something that has made a difference in his life and that he was able to go ahead and do it, no matter how it was funded.

February 03 2010 at 2:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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