MCKENZIE, TN – Joel Washburn isn’t usually in the photo or the news story. His typical place is behind the camera or behind the keyboard. As publisher of the McKenzie Banner, he has made a career, continuing his family legacy, of chronicling community life. However, in recent years, Washburn’s “community” has gone global.
Before what would be a fortuitous meeting in 2016, the native of McKenzie and longtime Rotarian had a service project to Honduras, a fact-finding mission trip to Nicaragua, and a family trip to Germany stamped in his passport. He readily acknowledges his youth lacked any international exposure.
“When I was a kid, my dad was the newspaper editor, and our vacations were to in-state press conventions. My family traveled only once out of state,” he said. “That was to Arkansas on a day trip. My father wanted to buy a newspaper. We never found the city, and we came home the same day!”
Since meeting Stacie Freeman, longtime Global Studies director at Bethel University and now co-founder of Global Citizen Adventure Corps, Washburn’s travel experiences and his perspective have expanded.
The path-changing encounter happened when he was once again covering an event — Bethel’s graduation. There he met Freeman and discovered they had both seen some of the same areas of Nicaragua. That connection led him to pay close attention when BU Global Studies promoted a trip to Cuba, a sight a 20-year-old Washburn had been told — while standing on a Key West beach and looking across the 90-mile divide — that he would never be able to visit.
Seeing the poster encouraging students to join Freeman in Cuba, just after the U.S. had reestablished a relationship with the country, Washburn remembers thinking, “At age 59, I was certainly not a traditional student – nor a student of any kind. I was a photojournalist working for the family-owned community newspaper. I knew I could document the trip and promote the local global studies program if I could simply make the trip.”
He did. And then he did again … and again. Eventually, he responded positively when asked to assume the role of GCAC Vice Chair of the Board of Directors. And in October 2023, he will join other GCAC board members, Freeman and co-founder Julie Hill on the first GCAC-branded travel service/learning project to the country that has claimed a portion of Washburn’s heart.
However, that heart is plenty crowded. Married 42 years to Teresa who helps with the nonprofit’s books and also travels with GCAC, the father of a daughter who is following his journalistic keystrokes and the grandfather of two, Washburn could devote his upcoming retirement years to rocking chair roles. But anyone who has had the briefest encounter with him knows that’s not happening.
“I love Joel,” Freeman gushes. “When he stops by my office for even just two minutes, it’s the best two minutes of my day. Having him on the board means we have access to his wisdom and having him on our trips means all our photos will tell a story. He’s truly a gift.”
He’s a gift that keeps on giving. One story he featured on Freeman’s work in Costa Rica caught the attention of readers who became benefactors for establishing many aspects of the unfolding program there. His photos, taken during GCAC’s spring trip to Guatemala, have shown the impact often-times low-income students from high schools and universities are making and receiving and are frequently utilized in fundraising promotional pieces.
The give and receive exchange isn’t limited to the students – who thanks to GCAC’s emphasis on breaking down barriers by raising money for scholarships — are able to travel with community members like Washburn.
He admits that his perspective has been altered.
“I have a lot more compassion toward people of color, especially Hispanics,” he noted. “I had heard stories of the difficulties of life before they came to U.S. but seeing them was something. I wish every kid had the experience of seeing the packed schools, how students are living with the very basics, but they are all happy to see us. It’s life-changing.”
He confesses that on that first trip to Cuba, he sneaked into a school and grabbed one of his favorite photos of two children in school uniforms, grinning widely for his camera.
“The classroom looked much like my first-grade class in 1964,” he shared and then quickly adds. “That doesn’t mean they aren’t getting a good education though. Seeing them happy with so little got me. They have friends, teachers, and the clothes on their backs and are very happy.”
Another trip occurred after a big storm and the Cuban community where the group was staying was without eggs.
“But they somehow found some and made one of our travelers a birthday cake,” he recounted. “’Service above self’ is what we call that in Rotary.”
Washburn relates that the opportunity to serve on the fledgling nonprofit’s Board is treasured – especially with the recent announcement of his leaving his role as publisher of the local paper and stepping into a reduced-hours position as editor.
“I told Stacie when she asked me to join the board, ‘You are giving me my purpose. I was ready to retire but didn’t have anything to retire to. I don’t golf, fish or hunt!’
In reflecting on his changing status, he added, “One of my friends once said I had an itch that needed to be scratched, and this is it. It gives me satisfaction to go and serve, and if I can’t go, then to provide that opportunity for someone else.”
To realize his dreams for expanding the organization currently introducing hundreds of West Tennessee students and community members to places like Cuba and, next year Italy and perhaps even Africa, he would have little time for a golf date.
“I hope GCAC can provide the financial resources for more student travelers to learn more about their world,” he concluded. “Even though we now have so many electronics and can look up anything, we don’t see, and we think we don’t need to care about others’ problems, but we do. You expose people to the needs of others and compassion of others, and you make the world a little smaller.”
Global Citizen Adventure Corps is a nonprofit dedicated to cultivating global citizens through education, service, and travel. By offering transferable college credit and donor-funded scholarships, GCAC actively builds pathways between rural high schools, universities, and a robust network of global nonprofit partners to provide travel program opportunities to underserved students.
In October, 2023, Joel Washburn trades his publishing role at the McKenzie Banner for that of editor. That’s the month he will also join fellow members of the board and the co-founders Julie Hill (left) and Stacie Freeman (far right) of Global Citizen Adventure Corps on a travel service learning project in Cuba. Washburn says he was asked to assume the role as vice chair for the nonprofit, it was “scratching an itch” and allowing him the “satisfaction to go and serve, and if I can’t go, then to provide that opportunity for someone else.” The Cuba trip in October will mark his second with GCAC this year and his fourth to Cuba since 2016. In March, he traveled to Guatemala, seen here.
Joel Washburn is standing (with wife Teresa at his left) in the back of this photo of a Guatemalan classroom, and it’s a rare shot of the photojournalist in front of the camera. Flanked by members of the March team of Global Citizen Adventure Corps students and community members, he enjoyed chronicling the dental care, music lessons, and cultural exchange of the program much more than posing. The group, including Bethel University students, served at a Cumberland Presbyterian Mission.