Let the Needle Move You

Journey co-founder Amy Merrill had a profound dream. When she woke up, she changed her life accordingly.

How do you tell the difference between genuine charity and virtue signaling? Are those instas of your friend in Guatemala giving piggyback rides to smiling dirt-clad children authentic or posed? Are we actually helping, or are we running in place?

Amy Merrill is co-founder of Journey, a travel company that allows its clients to crowdfund houses for poor South American families, then empowers them to build the houses with their own two hands. As you can imagine, Journey generates many instas of people piggybacking smiling dirt-clad Guatemalan children.

But according to Amy, who would know, the “why” of purpose-based travel doesn’t really matter. Yep. That’s right. It doesn’t matter why we do it. It’s just what we do. “Showing up” is as human as hunger. We can’t help it. We may think we’re moving the needle by doing charity work, but it’s actually the needle that's moving us.

So give yourself a break. People like helping other people. All the doubt, self-flagellation and cynicism over it gets us exactly nowhere. When we started this interview, we didn’t know that. Watch Amy put us in our place.

So, I want to do Journey, but I’m afraid of asking people for money. Would anyone really donate to me?

People always say that it’s not the people you expect who donate. Like maybe your college buddies would.

I really, really don't think that's going to happen.

The people you think would donate don’t always donate, but the ones who do sometimes surprise you.

Shouldn’t I wait to ask people for money until I really need it?

Like for what?

I don’t know.

I think that our campaigns are ultimately easier because it's not for you, it's for a family that needs it – it’s for something larger.

So you’re saying people should give money to a poor family instead of me?

And they're going to see exactly where their money goes because you’re going to build that home and meet that family.

Where is this so-called family?

They would be living in some kind of makeshift house in South America, maybe it's an adobe house, maybe it's really bad corrugated metal and plastic. Could be somewhere in between, but basically they're living in extreme poverty.

How is what you’re building any better than what they already have?

It's a huge upgrade. The floor of the home is going to take them off living and maybe sleeping on a dirt floor, four walls are going to protect them from the weather, there's going to be a real roof over their head, there's going to be a locking door which in many cases they've never had before so they've been subject to crime or violence.

How hard could it be to put a lock on a door?

You'd be surprised. Sometimes it's literally an adobe structure with no door, and you can't put a door into mud bricks.

Why can’t they just build themselves a new house?

For them, $3,000 U.S. is a lot of money. And it’s not just about getting them the money—it’s about the connection and experiential learning that happens when you work side by side.

Let’s talk about you. I know something happened in your old career that made you change your paths quite suddenly. What was that?

I lost my father and things became very real, things were drawn into focus pretty clearly in an instant. He had spent a lot of time at a job that he didn't love, so the message I received was this: life is short, you have to make it count, and you have to figure out ways to do incorporate what you love. So I did the “make it count” part – but I was working in the non-profit world in New York when I had a moment, a dream actually, and woke up and realized it was time to quit my job.

What was the dream?

A couple of boats were leaving a port, they were like little cruise ships, and I thought they were all going to the same place. But it turned out that they weren't, and soon I was stuck on this island with my boss at the time, making small talk and passing the day away. Suddenly I realized, we've only got 6 hours on this island, I gotta go. And she waved me on and said, "Go!" And I went, and found the island where everyone was hanging on a white sand beach: some were running and jumping off a cliff into the water, taking risks to jump into the bright blue ocean and having a blast. I realized that's where I was meant to be. When I woke up and sat straight up and said, "I have to quit my job." I had learned that being fearless about your career is really, really important.

“I had a moment, a dream actually, and woke up and realized it was time to quit my job.”

How did your father die?

It's funny, I've never interviewed about this before. It was pretty much a surprise. He was re-roofing our barn in Santa Cruz, tearing the shingles off and breathing the moldy air, and he got sick. They treated him for pneumonia, but it turned out to be something called Nocardia, which is a rare bacteria that exists in the dirt and most people are immune to it. He passed away from a bacterial infection in matter of months.

Amy at work.

Amy at work.

I’m so sorry. Also, ironic that he was working on a construction project when it happened. So many successful people have lost a parent young, as we learn over and over again in these interviews. Why was it such a turning point for you?

Losing him felt like standing on a cliff or a precipice. The real world, the adult grown up world is here in front of me, and I'm about to jump in, forced to become an adult overnight because I'm dealing with very heavy, heavy things. I don't get to run around and play and be a kid anymore. I'm not going to go do some random job to make sure I make enough money and have a stable life. I'd rather do something that actually matters and moves a needle on things that are facing our generation.

So then what did you do?

After the dream, I was approached by my friend Taylor, who was building a crowdfunding platform for causes called Change Heroes. He invited me to come aboard and lead partnerships with non-profits. I built out some really wonderful partnerships and saw people getting really excited about these fundraising campaigns. Yet they were all asking for more: to go see their money in action. He and I looked at each other at some point and said, "Well of course they do, if you funded a school and you raised $10,000 wouldn't you at some point want to go see that school and meet those kids?"

So a year ago we started testing trips to actually build homes that people funded, and they were a total success. That’s when Journey was born.

Were you like, "oh wow, this is really the thing, and the other thing not so much?"

For me, it was. I've never felt that feeling before, and that's not to say it's been easy, but even after that first experimental trip, we walked away saying to each other, "Well that worked.” People were rocked by it.

What kinds of people go on your trips?

Our trip goers are typically in the age range of 25-40. They're looking to take a trip but they don't want it to be just a beach vacation, they want it to mean something. To give back or have hands on involvement in the place that they're visiting, and they want to do it with good people. They’re looking for a journey, really.

Have you encountered people who do it to acquire a badge of goodness that they can put on social media?

I feel like that’s an especially cynical tone to take.

It is very cynical.

Well, I definitely have opinions about “doing good:” having been in this space for a decade, I do think that we've watched businesses pop up that are one for one, or social enterprises that maybe we don't need. It's tough. But I don't know that the people starting these businesses are doing it for the wrong reasons. I think it's a little simpler than that. I think people spend the first part of their careers doing something that seems like the right thing to do, maybe to make enough money or to do what their parents quietly pressured them to do, and they come out of it realizing, oh my God, that's not what life is about. This is about me contributing to the world in a way that matters, and having fun doing it. Maybe they wake up to the fact that there are such pressing problems in the world. It would be really tough right now to get excited about making widgets with a startup that’s just an added convenience to our lives. In an age of technology, we have the tools to help in an instant. I think, again, your question is framed in a way that’s the darkest way to look at it.

The work.

The work.

Do you feel like there's a separation between the people doing the helping and those being helped?

We’re all part of the same system, part of the same organism. Our approach is not from a place of distance: well, I'm up here and they're down there, and I’m going to go do this nice thing and then go home, and I would never let them near me in my regular life. No, I think it's actually people showing up and realizing we’re not so different after all, and showing up is just what we do as human beings—we help each other.

“The beauty is in the mingling.”

Why Is it harder to have empathy for poor American families in the Midwest than it is for poor third world families far away?

You can bet in the weeks after the election my head was spinning. I thought, what are we going to do? We have an obligation as a company that builds empathy to participate in what our country is going through. So stay tuned on that. Our first domestic trip is going to be next summer to South Dakota.

What do you love about what people take away from Journey trips?

For so many people it's switching something on for them. They might have otherwise gone on a surf trip to Nicaragua and walked right past the very family that they end up building the home for on our trip. They might see that family and in their head switch into their typical thinking of, that family is from that world, I'm from my world. What we aim to do is to break down those barriers. The beauty is in the mingling.

By Isaac Simpson

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