Volunteer vacations blend travel with help and hope: If you go

The best place to explore volunteer vacation opportunities in the United States and abroad is through nonprofit organizations or church groups. It's important to keep in mind that you will have to pay for your own travel and other expenses, just ...

The best place to explore volunteer vacation opportunities in the United States and abroad is through nonprofit organizations or church groups. It's important to keep in mind that you will have to pay for your own travel and other expenses, just as you would with any other vacation. That means you'll want to check out any costs before hitting the road.

Here are some leading nonprofits that sponsor such trips:

* Global Volunteers offers trips around the world, including Africa, Asia and South America, where you can help build schools, tutor children, teach English or help provide health care. There also are projects in the United States, including Florida. (800) 487-1074; .

* Alfalit International is a Christian organization that provides educational services and community development in 21 developing countries, including Angola, Brazil, Haiti, Mozambique and Chile. (800) 410-ALFA; .

* Habitat for Humanity provides volunteers with an opportunity to build homes for the needy inside the United States and around the world. (800) 422-4828; .


* Cross-Cultural Solutions operates 18 programs out of 11 countries, including Brazil, Russia and Tanzania. These trips range from two to 12 weeks. (800) 380-4777; www.crosscultural

* Earthwatch Institute engages volunteers worldwide in scientific field research to promote the understanding and action necessary for a sustainable environment.(800) 776-0188; .

HOI AN, Vietnam -- Colorful lanterns hung from baroque Asian cornices and concave roof tiles glowed in the setting sun as I gunned my scooter down a narrow street hugging the Thu Bon River.

It was the end of another workday, and this ancient city buzzed with the sounds of moped engines, their high-pitched horns blaring out as whole families rode home, embracing single file on the tiny conveyances my friend, Jake Klotz, and I referred to as "scoot-scoots."

We had come to Vietnam to volunteer at a two-week summer camp for orphans and street children. Wiped out from another day of work, we couldn't wait to get to the Mango Room, throw back our first Tiger beers of the evening and unwind.

Instead of relaxing on the beach, swimming in the South China Sea or bartering for trinkets at the Central Market, we spent our days struggling to entertain a bevy of 8- to 17-year-olds.

It was no small task, especially when one requires a translator to communicate. For the first few days, I felt as if I were a complete failure, utterly unequipped to capture my kids' imaginations.

But I soon realized how little it takes to bring a modicum of happiness to their lives. All they really wanted was some one-on-one attention. A high-five or pat on the back was enough to set them grinning.


Having a chance to spend time with them proved to be one of the most rewarding experiences in my life. It was a gem of a destination, a moving monument that provided a window into this community that I surely would have passed by had I simply been a tourist.

That may be why volunteer vacations have become so popular.

Once a niche vacation trend, melding service with travel has blossomed since the early 1990s into a full-blown phenomenon as millions of volunteers from the United States fan out across the globe to build houses, dig irrigation ditches, count endangered wildlife and tutor children.

"Americans are pretty savvy travelers, and I think they're seeking more meaningful experiences that go beyond hotels and shopping," said Barbara DeGroot, the media relations manager for Global Volunteers, a St. Paul-based organization that is one of the largest nonprofits sponsoring volunteer vacations.

Since 1995, Global Volunteers has seen a 145 percent increase in the number of people going on volunteer vacations. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 30 percent of travelers ages 16 and up have used vacation time to help the needy.

Many of the volunteers are young people, college kids or young professionals looking to see the world while doing good deeds.

At one time, the government sponsored many of these activities through the Peace Corps. Today, much of the growth is fueled by nonprofit organizations and church groups that connect volunteers with projects needing their time, attention and, in most cases, their money.

Volunteer vacations aren't a cheap way to travel. They can cost $2,000-$4,000 because travelers pay for transportation, lodging and, in many cases, supplies. Even so, it's a small price to pay for the rewards these trips can offer.


Bruce Orosz and his son, Misha, of Miami Beach, Fla., traveled with a team of scientists to a remote area of Argentina to count wildcats as part of a conservation project with Earth Watch Institute. For 10 days they hiked through grass plains and over rolling hills looking for endangered cats and connecting to the environment.

"You really enlist in whatever the effort is," Orosz said of volunteer vacations. "It was better than a seaside vacation because you're one step removed from your normal world."

When travelers take the time to contribute to the communities they visit, they are repaid with a deeper insight into the way others live. Often, that can lead to close friendships that open up opportunities to experience the history, culture and geography of a place in a way that traditional travel cannot.

As wars and catastrophes ravish tens of thousands at home and abroad, volunteer vacations also offer an opportunity to show compassion to less-fortunate people -- and leave behind a positive impression of Americans.

"The world is not at peace, and there's a lot of cultural conflict," DeGroot said. "Volunteering offers travelers a chance to build bridges."

So when Jake called and asked me to teach in Vietnam, I jumped at the chance. He and his mother, Diane Giancaspro, started a small nonprofit in 2005 called Rivers of Hope (; 773-991-7509), which puts on the camp each June.

Giancaspro is a photographer from Chicago, and Jake is an artist living in New York City. Together, they created a program that gives the children of Hoi An a chance to take photos, paint pictures and explore their creativity.

This year, they wanted me to teach a newspaper class. Other volunteers taught students how to make robots and put on puppet shows.


The camp provides orphans and street children with a creative outlet during the summer, and allows volunteers a chance to get to know the kids so we could help find them sponsors after we return to the States.

Many of the children are from mountain villages just outside of Hoi An. Their parents have passed away from disease or are too poor to take care of them, so they're sent to the orphanage or street children's center to live.

If they're lucky, they'll do well in school, get some money from the government to attend university and land a decent-paying job in Vietnam's burgeoning economy, which was the second-fastest growing economy in Asia last year behind China.

But some students have developmental disabilities that will limit their futures while others will have trouble finding good-paying jobs despite their best efforts.

I taught two newspaper classes with about eight kids in each class. Our job was to create a newsletter that chronicled the activities at the camp. The idea was to publish a newsletter and distribute it on the camp's final day so everyone had something to take home to remember our summer.

That's another dimension volunteer vacations offer: a sense of accomplishment.

Having taken extended trips in Europe, Africa and the United States, I often reached the end of my travels with a nagging itch to be productive after weeks of self-indulgence.

Not so with volunteer vacations.


With help from my translator, Nguyen Thi Kim Ngoz, we spent the first few days reviewing the basics of journalism -- who, what, when, where, why and how. Then my kids took the notepads I had given them and came back with great stories.

One of the students I grew closest to was A Viet Toui. A wiry 17-year-old boy who rarely spoke, Toui's parents died when he was an infant. He had spent his entire life inside the orphanage and was on the verge of aging out with nowhere to go.

Despite his quiet demeanor, Toui held the respect of the other students. When he spoke, they listened.

For our newsletter, I asked Toui to write something about life in the orphanage. His story turned out to be one of the students' favorites.

"In life, everybody experiences pain from the loss of purpose and the loss of love. But the biggest pain is the loss of a father and mother," Toui wrote. "Most people can depend on the love of a mother or a father, but the orphanage children cannot. Orphans must be self-reliant to face life."

Giving a kid like Toui a leg up in that struggle is worth 10,000 vacations.

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