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Thursday, October 8, 2015

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Travel organization founder has a social conscience

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A group of Operation Groundswell volunteers in Southeast Asia in 2010

The November sun streams through the windows of this busy Bloor Street office, situated in the heart of Toronto’s Koreatown.

Books and papers are piled neatly here and there, and four young staffers sit side by side at their desks, excitedly engaged in conversation.

This is Operation Groundswell’s (OG) headquarters, a non-profit travel organization for university students and graduates aged 18 to 30 who wish to volunteer abroad.

Established in 2007 by friends and avid travellers David Berkal and Jonah Brotman, OG is one of several startup companies Berkal has helped build and grow.

Berkal is proud of OG for being a successful social-enterprise model.

“We are not just trying to be a big-box volunteer travel organization, rather, we are looking to spark a ‘groundswell’ of backpackers committed to making a difference globally.”

And making a difference is clearly evident in everything that Berkal does. The seeds of his work have been planted in Canada and abroad.

In 2009, in addition to OG, Berkal helped develop the Canadian Roots Exchange, a non-profit student-exchange program for 18- to 30-year-olds. Funded in the past by the Ontario government, the Canadian Roots Exchange sends groups of native and non-native students to aboriginal reserves across Canada to exchange and share knowledge, art and culture. 

Boyishly handsome and casually dressed, 23-year-old Berkal looks like a laid-back kind of guy. He speaks softly when he describes his achievements over the last few years, making it all sound so easy.

Having recently obtained a degree in peace and conflict studies at the University of Toronto, Berkal already has a list of accomplishments that would make a 40-year-old blush.

Since high school, Berkal has not only been recognized for his academic prowess, but also for his leadership role at U of T and throughout the Toronto community.

He was awarded the Dean’s Student Leadership Award in 2011 – U of T’s most prestigious leadership award given to only one student a year.

Last summer, Berkal was the valedictorian for The Next 36 Entrepreneurial Leadership Institute. Each summer, the institute helps 36 undergraduate students from across Canada launch their careers through a program that consists of academic and personal mentorship from some of Canada’s business leaders.

Refreshingly humble, Berkal almost forgets to mention that he has just been nominated for Oxford University’s Rhodes Scholarship, one of the most acclaimed postgraduate awards in the world.

Growing up in Toronto with his parents and older brother, Berkal claims he was raised “with an eye to social justice.”

These values were further instilled while he attended Hashomer Hatzair’s Camp Shomria in Perth, Ont., for much of his childhood and adolescence.

In fact, it was during the summer of 2006, after he graduated from high school, that the idea of creating a volunteer program for young adults took root.

Berkal’s close friend, Brotman, had just returned home after doing an internship in Ghana and was disappointed with his experience abroad.

While planning his own gap year, Berkal was disheartened with the existing student volunteer options.

Together, Brotman and Berkal thought that they could create a more meaningful student volunteer program.

In October 2007, Berkal travelled to Ghana for two months, to design a volunteer program using the contacts Brotman had made. Back in Toronto, Brotman did the groundwork, assembling the first group of OG participants, who were scheduled to depart the following May.

The feedback from the first OG trip was positive, and in the last six years, the organization has served more than 200 participants from around the world.

Programs are offered year-round to destinations such as Guatemala, the Middle East, East and West Africa, Peru, Southeast Asia, India and Haiti.

OG’s 2012 lineup now includes volunteer touring trips for high school students and 12-day programs for empty nesters. Each group of eight to 12 participants has two leaders. The importance of working together as a group is evident in all of OG’s programs. Berkal credits OG’s focus on group work to his involvement with Hashomer Hatzair. 

“When people are travelling for the first time to the developing world, there’s a lot to take in. Having a group experience definitely makes the trip more meaningful,” Berkal says.

Educating volunteers about what it means to be an ethical volunteer is also at the forefront of OG’s mission.

“We do backpacking with a purpose. We explore the culture, and have a genuine experience mixed with important community-requested projects.  We travel off the beaten track, not the typical tourist guidebook thing,” Berkal says.

Accommodations include a mix of camping, living in “homestays” (renting from a local family) or apartments.

Berkal is pleased with the growth of OG, but he doesn’t plan to dilute the underlying message of his non-profit organization, which focuses on creating a positive impact on the participants and many communities abroad.

“We’re trying to build the best and biggest, ethical, genuine, affordable organization,” he says.

A six-week volunteer excursion runs about $2,500, but Berkal understands that this cost may be out of reach for some people and offers a scholarship for those in need.

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