If anyone has a good reason to be angry with air mattresses, it's Joe Schuster.

"My first night out, the [seams] in my air mattress gave out, so it was literally a bubble. So, I slept in my hammock for two months," he said, laughing. "But it was actually really comfortable!"

Not many 19-year-olds would have such an upbeat attitude - but Joe, a parishioner of St. Cecilia's Church in Warrensburg, is an unusual young adult. He returned to his hometown Dec. 14 after spending almost three months volunteering in the island nation of Madagascar, just off the east coast of Africa.

Back in May, Joe had just finished his first year at St. Michael's College in Vermont, studying energy engineering and liberal arts as part of an engineering program between St. Michael's and Clarkson University. In his free time, he would head out to the nearby slopes for snowboarding and skiing, or visit his brother, who also lives in Vermont.

Even before college, Joe was ahead of the game: Having completed college-level courses at his high school in Warrensburg, he started off at St. Michael's with 28 college credits already under his belt.

Off to island
Instead of graduating early, he decided to take a gap year, pack his bags and go to Madagascar.

As a child, Joe explained, he loved to watch "Animal Planet," becoming engrossed with nature and different kinds of wildlife. He especially wanted to go to Madagascar: "It's a place that really intrigued me. Around 90 percent of their fauna and flora are just endemic to Madagascar. You can't see them anywhere else in the world."

Joe also volunteered for several mission trips with St. Cecilia's parish, going to states like Rhode Island and New Jersey. Seeing the impact on the people he helped during those trips was what inspired him to do more volunteer work on his own: "the same thing, just on a bigger scale," he remarked.

Joe's recent trip was with the U.K.-based charity SEED Madagascar (Sustainable Environment, Education and Development in Madagascar). Founded in 2000, the charity manages a range of sustainable development and conservation projects in the southeast region of Madagascar, the most undeveloped area of the country.

SEED Madagascar sponsors volunteer opportunities for people from around the globe. Joe applied for SEED's Pioneer program, which is broken into three parts: construction activities, animal conservation activities and village- or office-based activities.

Joe's days
Joe spent the first month of his odyssey in Manambaro, helping build a high school there. The volunteers camped on the school grounds, rising every day around 7 a.m. Breakfast consisted of rice, bananas, coffee and "mofo gasy," a type of Malagasy bread.

The group would work from 8 a.m. to noon, have lunch and a break until 2 p.m., and then start back to work until 5 p.m. Afterward, everyone had a dinner of rice, beans, pumpkin, fish or a variety of vegetables with rice.

Joe talked about his down-time after the meal: A number of young children attending the primary school nearby would come to play with the volunteers. He said the language barrier was difficult at first, but SEED's guides gave brief language lessons so the volunteers could learn the basics of communication.

Joe also spent a month in Sainte Luce Reserve, part of one of the last remaining intact coastal rainforests in Madagascar. His schedule included doing animal and plant conservation.

"We did 'tree research,' because there are still certain types of trees that aren't known there," he said; "and there are butterflies where they don't know what kinds of caterpillars they come from, so we would catch caterpillars and see what they turned into."

In the morning, the group would spent time in the rainforest tracking down animals or plants; in the afternoon, they'd visit one of the three nearby villages and give a lesson to the village children.

"It's a different lesson each week," Joe told The Evangelist. "We'd teach them about personal hygiene, like sneezing into your elbow; or about why we need to help sustain the coral reefs they have around the fishing village, because they're over-fishing the lobsters."

Little luxuries
For the final two weeks of the program, Joe worked in the SEED office, overseeing various projects. During that period, he was able to stay in the home of one of the SEED employees living in Madagascar, which was a far cry from camping on the forest floor.

"You take a lot of things for granted when you go to a place like that, like your running water and toilet," Joe remarked. "When I got home, it was weird to go into the bathroom and then flush good drinking water: You could literally drink that water if you had to. The water they're drinking [in Madagascar] is so bad, people get giardia [an intestinal infection caused by a parasite] from it."

Joe added that SEED is helping to build latrines in remote parts of Madagascar, but they don't compare to American indoor plumbing: Each latrine is "a cement slab that's raised up a little bit and behind it they dig 10 to 15 feet, and then you have two platform things to stand on, and you squat. That's the nicest toilet you can get when you're there."

Another luxury in Manambaro was a drink that was kept cold. "They had one shop in town where you could get cold drinks, so I'd go and get an orange Fanta," Joe said. "It was a good end to the day."

Humbled by his trip, Joe hopes to participate in more charitable work as a volunteer.

"I got to meet a lot of people I would have never met before, and see a lot of different ways of living," he said. "It was a really good experience."