Local woman combines devotion to travel, volunteerism at elephant reserve

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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Learn more about nonprofit

• Meet Crystal Steinmueller at the 2 Hands 7 Continents booth at the Vancouver Peace and Justice Fair from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Esther Short Park, 301 W. Eighth St.

• On the Web:

2 Hands 7 Continents

Facebook: 2 Hands 7 Continents

Elephants World

Crystal Steinmueller spent her summer vacation feeding and bathing rescued elephants in Thailand. That's not such an unusual adventure for the 30-year-old world traveler who has visited 33 countries. This summer in Bangkok she had her left foot tattooed with a globe and the words "Carpe Diem," or seize the day.

Steinmueller was bitten by the travel bug during her first trip abroad in 2004, when she visited Paris, London and Dublin with her twin sister, Jennifer. Four months later, her sister died.

"My passion for travel and volunteering started after I lost my sister," she said.

Over the next 18 months, Steinmueller backpacked extensively throughout Europe and Egypt, but never stayed put for very long. After the trip she realized that she wanted to continue traveling, but wanted to plant some roots by volunteering during her travels.

So when she traveled to Peru, she saw the sites, but she also arranged to volunteer at a boys' orphanage at the base of the Andes. That life-changing experience made her

realize that she wanted to combine travel and volunteerism every summer.

Since then, she has volunteered by teaching English in Tanzania, painted a school and worked with kids in Uganda, taught English to young Buddhist monks in a monastery in Nepal, worked with children in an orphanage in India, worked with animals including spider monkeys at a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation center in Guatemala and gave public HIV/AIDS presentations in villages in Ghana.

Almost two years ago she realized she wanted to help other people do the kind of volunteer travel she has experienced. In honor of her sister, Steinmueller developed "2 Hands 7 Continents," which she describes as "a nonprofit to help promote a positive change for people, animals and the environment through volunteering."

The organization's board of directors is in place. The final paperwork to create the nonprofit soon will be filed. Then the organization can apply for grants to help people who don't have the means to travel with Steinmueller and to experience volunteering in a developing country.

This past summer, Steinmueller, a paraeducator at Battle Ground High School, spent two months total in Thailand. She travels lightly with just a backpack; she travels cheaply by couch surfing. She had time to see the sights and to visit schools. She had checked an extra bag filled with donated school supplies and brought them to children at the Hilltribe Learning Center in Sangklaburi, Thailand, on her way to her gig at the elephant preserve.

Steinmueller spent a month volunteering at Elephants World, an elephant preserve in western Thailand. At the elephant preserve she slept in a grass bungalow with a thatched roof. Electricity wasn't reliable. The bathroom, with sporadic cold running water, was around the back.

"The bathroom was not completely walled in, so often a snake, scorpion or other creepy crawlies joined me in the bathroom," she said. "Travel has changed my perspective on how we live our lives. I appreciate clean drinking water from a faucet, constant electricity and the safety of women," she said.

"My most amazing experience this summer has been bathing with the rescued elephants. They are huge beasts, but they are gentle creatures," she said.

Even when she's traveling for leisure, Steinmueller considers how she might help. When she and her boyfriend vacationed in Cozumel, Mexico, she brought school supplies and donated them to an agency that helps displaced children.

She's already planning next summer's adventure: walking the 750-kilometer pilgrimage Camino de Santiago -- from the south of France to Spain -- as a fundraiser for 2 Hands 7 Continents in honor of her sister. That's about 450 miles. Then she'll journey to Morocco to work for a nonprofit that aids women's rights.

Meanwhile, the elephant preserve has begun a fundraising effort to purchase its own land. One square meter costs 100 baht, which is about $3.30 in U.S. currency. Steinmueller and 2H7C is helping to raise money for the land purchase. She also is compiling a list of upcoming volunteer events in Clark County including teen volunteer opportunities.