April 19, 2023 | Travel

'A Trip With Purpose'

After a three-year hiatus, Unbound awareness trips are back

By Larry Livingston

Unbound sponsors make a tremendous difference in the lives of those they help, but it can be difficult to appreciate from a distance just how much their support matters. That’s one reason why Unbound has, over the years, offered special group trips to the countries where it works.

These “awareness trips” provide an opportunity for sponsors to meet their sponsored friends and see firsthand how Unbound partners with families in their struggle against poverty.

Thousands of individuals have participated in the trips, which began in 1998 and, at their peak, exceeded 30 per year. They had become so popular that when they were halted in March 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it was disappointing for sponsors and sponsored friends who were looking forward to meeting each other, as well as Unbound staff in the U.S. and abroad who organize the visits.

Now, after an absence of three years, awareness trips are being reintroduced on a limited basis. Unbound has scheduled six trips for 2023: three to Guatemala, home to Unbound’s largest program, and one each to Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. (See the latest information on the 2023 trips and sign up for future updates.)


In a photo from a 2019 awareness trip to Guatemala, sponsor Marlene picks coffee berries that will be sold to a local fair-trade enterprise. Many Unbound families in the area earn their living by growing coffee. Visitors often see firsthand different stages of coffee production and processing.

Looking forward after disappointment

The first signs that COVID-19 would affect awareness trips came in early March 2020 as countries around the world began enacting travel restrictions. Without knowing how long the crisis would last, and fearing the possibility of Unbound travelers being unable to return to the U.S., the organization had no choice but to gradually cancel every trip scheduled for that year.

Matthew, a sponsor since 2009, was getting ready to travel to Guatemala at the time. He has several sponsored friends and had made four previous Latin American trips.

“I was just really disappointed because I was anticipating the trip,” he said. “I love the awareness trips, and [it was disappointing] just knowing that I wouldn’t be able to see my sponsored friends in person as soon as I’d hoped. I’d kind of gotten used to seeing them every couple of years.

“Unless you go there, you really don’t understand all the behind-the-scenes things that happen at the local level. The dedication of the local staff is pretty extraordinary. They are doing a lot of the work that a sponsorship is enabling, just walking with the families as they go through their sponsorship journey.”

Longtime sponsors Susan and Andrew were scheduled to attend an awareness trip in Guatemala with their two daughters. Though the couple does a lot of international travel, they were especially looking forward to that trip.

“Most of our traveling has been for fun or for sightseeing and things like that,” Susan said. “But this trip provides particular meaning and excitement not just because we’ll get to see beautiful Guatemala and these amazing people, but because it’s a trip with purpose — seeing the impact we’ve had on the lives of people we’ve been writing letters with and feel like we know but will finally get to meet.”

Like many other sponsors, Matthew and Susan stayed in touch with Unbound, looking forward to the time the trips would start up again. Susan put her name on a waiting list, while Matthew frequently checked the Unbound website for updates.

“There was a box one day that said, ‘Click here if you want to be notified when we start trips again,’” Matthew said. “I put my email address in, and [after a while] I got an email saying, ‘We’re starting trips back on a limited basis.’ I dropped everything I was doing, and I filled out the application form.”

Matthew is now scheduled for a trip to Honduras in August. He’s looking forward to, at long last, reconnecting with his two sponsored friends there. Susan and Andrew and their daughters will finally travel to Guatemala in November. Though she was disappointed when their 2020 trip was canceled, Susan sees a benefit to the girls being older now.

“This time they’re 14 and 15, so it’s going to be even more meaningful to them,” Susan said.


Juana Catarina is the mother of sponsored child Rudy in Guatemala. Here she teaches her daughter, Betzabe, the traditional way to weave the beautiful textiles their country is known for. Travelers learn about the livelihoods of families on awareness trips.

Stepping out again

Stacy King, who leads the Kansas City headquarters team that coordinates the trips, said that Unbound knew it was time to bring awareness trips back when, in 2022, international programs staff and members of the marketing and communications team started traveling again. Still, it was only after plenty of dialogue with program staff in the countries where Unbound works that the decision to move ahead was made.

“Not only did we want to see a successful trip happen, but we wanted the [local] teams to be able to focus on what they needed to focus on after not having visits for so long. Things change. Priorities change. New things had to be learned during the shutdown.”

Among the new things that needed to be learned by everyone, including trip planners and travelers, were COVID-related requirements concerning such things as vaccinations and masks, which vary from country to country. It’s a reminder that, for the discernable future at least, international travel has changed. Unbound is adapting.

“All of the conversations and the choices that have been made leading up to this resumption of travel are really in care of staff and families and, especially, sponsors,” King said. “We want people to have that good experience with us, the experience that they came to have.”


Unbound's Experience Integration team works out of the organization’s Kansas City headquarters. From left are Stacy King, Megan Martin, Leslie Hernandez, director Karen Allemang, Joanna Pergande and Diana Loera. Stacy leads the team that coordinates awareness trips, which includes Leslie, Joanna and Diana. “Between the four of us, we have a combined 43 years coordinating trips,” Stacy said.

Most of our traveling has been for fun or for sightseeing and things like that. But this trip provides particular meaning and excitement not just because we’ll get to see beautiful Guatemala and these amazing people, but because it’s a trip with purpose — seeing the impact we’ve had on the lives of people we’ve been writing letters with and feel like we know but will finally get to meet.

— Susan, Unbound Sponsor

Emiliano is a 15-year-old sponsored youth in El Salvador who enjoys making piñatas, which are popular throughout the region. Bright, festive colors are a hallmark of Latin American countries, and travelers are often greeted with colorful displays and cultural presentations when they visit communities where Unbound works.

Alejandra Mejía, right, a staff member in Colombia, visits the family of sponsored child Johan, standing next to her. In the doorway are Johan’s mother, Deyis, and brother Jesús. Awareness trip participants visit communities and sometimes attend home visits as an opportunity to learn more about how families live and how they’re benefiting from sponsorship. 

Francisco “Chico” Chavajay is the coordinator of Unbound in Guatemala. Because it’s the largest program Unbound has, there are more awareness trips there than to any other country. Here Chico looks out over the spectacular Lake Atitlan, which is near Unbound’s headquarters and visitor center, and a favorite site for travelers.

Unbound regional reporters Oscar Tuch, Josue Sermeño and Carolina Pulgarin, and Regional Reporters Director Henry Flores contributed information and photos for this story.