Sisters Lindsey and Lee Ellen Fulmer were hundreds of miles apart when they came up with the same idea at the exact same time.
Back in 2014, Lindsey was about to begin her internship for a missions ministry in Oklahoma when she started thinking about traveling across the country and volunteering at different nonprofits.
“I didn’t mention it to anyone, and I kind of just put it on the back burner,” says Lindsey.
At the same time, Lee Ellen was wrapping up her degree in elementary education in their hometown in South Carolina. She, too, was thinking about traveling the states.
But Lee Ellen didn’t want to drive around aimlessly.
“I wanted to put a meaningful purpose behind it,” she explains. “I thought it’d be really cool if I could volunteer everywhere I went. … But I’m kind of a shy and reserved person, so I was like, ‘I can’t do this alone.'”
Guess who she called?
“[Lindsey] was like, ‘This is something I’ve been thinking about for weeks now! This is the answer!'” Lee Ellen remembers with a laugh.
That’s when the Fulmer sisters began to lay the foundation for Project Wave — a mission to volunteer in all 50 states, one week in each.
To get started, Lindsey planned out the route so it was both weather- and sightseeing-friendly. From there, they reached out to potential host families who might be willing to take them in for a week.
They also started saving their own money and were fortunate enough to set aside money for food and other necessities (with a bit of help from family and friends through a GoFundMe page).
Once that was all set, they searched for nonprofits within a one-hour radius of where they were staying.
Beyond that, they also had two main criteria: First, they wanted to help people directly. And second, they wanted to help out smaller nonprofits that don’t get as much mainstream attention.
“They don’t get as much publicity as larger nonprofits, and they struggle because of that,” explains Lee Ellen. “We also wanted to learn as much as possible on this trip. With the smaller nonprofits, you have the opportunity to talk with founders and directors and different department heads and work more closely with them.”
It took almost two years of planning, but eventually, in July 2016, Lindsey and Lee Ellen made their way to Tennessee — the first stop of their 50-week trip.
As of this writing, they’re in Wyoming — the 41st state on their itinerary.
“Voluntourism” can get a bad rap, so the sisters made sure to check their egos at the door and really listen to what each nonprofit needs. Whether it’s helping clean facilities or working directly with people, Lindsey and Lee Ellen were sponges when it came to learning about other people’s missions.
“When you’re helping people of different backgrounds in different regions, you have to go in with an open mind,” says Lindsey. “We’re going to help you do what you need done.”
“We’re going to come in and learn about what you’re doing or what people are struggling with without any judgment. … Whatever you need, we make it happen.”
Ultimately, the Fulmer sisters are hoping to spread their passion for service to as many people as possible.
Granted, not everyone will be able to take a volunteer trip to all 50 states. And when it comes to giving back, many people feel that donating money over donating time is the way to go. What the Fulmers emphasize is that it’s important to understand what works best for you and how you can maximize your own giving potential. They wanted to travel, so they combined that with their dream of helping as many people as possible.
“There are people who are artists or who are good with computers or who just like to work with their hands,” says Lee Ellen. “There are opportunities for those people out there. They just have to find them. And so we wanted to bring light to that to show that everyone has the ability to help someone.”
She continues, “Our simplest mission is to inspire people of all different talents to get out and use their talents to help their community.”
“One of the things we’ve seen throughout this trip is that organizations, people in need, families, everyone — people are genuinely good at the core of themselves,” adds Lindsey. “They want to help people. They just need an opportunity to do that.”
The most amazing thing about Project Wave isn’t the miles they racked up — it’s the message they’ve spread along the way: Look in your hearts, find what it is you love, and use that special something to make an impact and pay it forward in your own little way.