magine devoting precious vacation days and hard-earned dollars to building roads or painting schools. This getaway niche— called volunteer vacations—is a popular alternative to traditional travel.

The swell of volunteers is growing now that more than 1,000 organizations offer this form of adventure travel in the U.S. and abroad. You might not think that charting the effects of fertilizing fields with sewer sludge or living in primitive quarters while teaching English would draw people away from traditional destinations at luxurious seaside hotels. But the volunteer vacation boom is doing just that. Volunteer ranks looking to contribute their time and talent are growing by leaps and bounds.

Nancy Reid, a 25-year veteran elementary teacher in Randolph, Vt., was looking for something that would "make my head spin, stretch the limits of my comforts and security, and push me to another place within myself." Reid found it through Global Citizen's Network, St. Paul, Minn. She spent two weeks working at physical and mental jobs in the tiny village of San Juan, Guatemala. Since that trip she spent two weeks as a volunteer on a South Dakota Indian reservation.

Lynn Phelps, a retired Madison, Wis., physician has gone on four working vacations through Elder Hostel's service trips department. Phelps and his wife, Sally, have worked in a variety of jobs from tracking river dolphins with naturalists in Peru, to doing light construction, to teaching English in Indonesia and Poland.

Interaction with and learning from the local people is the main draw for the Phelps' continuing interest in working vacations. "With other types of vacations you're not able to integrate yourself into the culture. You're looking at people instead of getting to know them," Phelps says.

    Groups offering
    volunteer vacations

    Most projects
    do not require
    specific job skills.

The teachers
became learners
and the
became teachers.
Time-tested vacation formula
Working vacations have a catchy formula of tourism, intrigue, and a sense of purpose, as well as a heavy dose of working alongside local people. Seeing the countryside is another attraction. "When we taught English and painted curbs, parking lots, and schools for three weeks in remote central Java," Phelps says, "we were able to get away on weekends and explore the country's rich culture and see many of [its] cottage industries."

Exploring the world while helping others is the prime reason people sign up for volunteer vacations. Ever since 1984, when former president Jimmy Carter's efforts building houses with Habitat for Humanity International drew attention, the idea of paying your own way to help others around the world has appealed to a growing army of volunteers.

More than 3,000 volunteers built homes for Global Village, Habitat for Humanity's volunteer vacation department in 1999, three times the number a decade ago. Even though there's no exact count of volunteers contributing pro-bono efforts while vacationing, Bill McMillon, editor of ""Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others" (ISBN 1556523637) says the number of people who make voluntary work contributions is on the rise.

In 1987, when McMillon's first guidebook came out, it listed 75 organizations connecting volunteers with work vacations. The seventh edition, August 1999, has 275 listings. While McMillon's book lists many options, it's only a partial roster of worldwide organizations seeking volunteers for pro-bono getaways.

What to expect
Volunteer vacation opportunities range from working in a homeless shelter to living in a French chateau restoring medieval paintings. Opportunities for making a contribution to another culture are practically endless. You name it, it's probably done by volunteers somewhere in the world.

Most projects fall into six categories and do not require specific job skills. Unskilled volunteers with limited or no specific language skills usually can learn the basics in a short time. Most volunteer vacations involve more than one of the following projects, and other projects often come up spontaneously. Phelps says, "When we were in Poland, I was asked to visit the local university and grade papers of an English class. My wife was asked to help the local police department [employees] with their English pronunciation."
  • Construction/Renovation: Typical projects include constructing homes, schools, and playgrounds and restoring historic landmarks. Tasks might include painting, scraping, hammering, and pouring cement.

  • Environmental protection: Reforestation, rebuilding of public land. Typical tasks include building fences, pruning trees, and planting flowers and native plants.

  • Cultural projects: These public relations types of projects may involve promoting local festivals and events.

  • Teaching English: No English degree needed. Locals who speak some English may need help with pronunciation, reading, and writing.

  • Research: Volunteers usually work with a scientist or naturalist compiling data—for example, counting whales in a region.

  • Archeological digs: Volunteers carefully clear sites of debris and may be asked to label the finds.
Many volunteer vacations are geared for students with free time during summer or spring breaks. One of the better known organizations linking students with projects is Habitat for Humanity/Maxwell House Collegiate Challenge, which builds homes for families. Another is the Tennessee-based group Break Away that connects students with groups in need.

The cost of volunteer vacations usually covers room and board while on location. Insurance usually covers accidents on location, but participants should have their own health-care coverage. The trips are a tax write-off because they're a donation to charity. Most trips require two- to three-week stays.

Airfare to a project's location usually is not covered. For example, Reid's two-week trip to Guatemala cost $1,000. She shopped around and found airfare for an additional $300.

Before you sign up, ask where the organization's money goes. Reid learned that part of the cost of Global Citizens Network's program went to hire a local woman to cook for the group and prepare food with bottled water. Each group also brought in supplies that the local people used.

How prepared are volunteers who show up for duty in remote locations? Reid says, "Global Citizens Network did a good job preparing us for things we might encounter." At her site, a different person each night wrote about the day's experience in a community diary. The diary was given to Global Citizens Network at the end of the trip. "I read a previous group's diary before going on this trip, and it helped sort things out for me."
Photo by Judy Weidman

    getaways with a goal
    have grown from
    novelty experience to
    mainstream adventure.

Photo by Judy Weidman

Volunteer vacation
range from
working in a
homeless shelter
to living in a
medieval paintings.
Making a difference in people's lives
For Reid, who never had been to a Third World country, living and working in Guatemala was a profound learning experience. She says she'd have a hard time going back to the traditional getaway. "Our conditions were primitive. We didn't have showers, and a hole in the ground served as our toilet, but I wouldn't trade the experience for a traditional vacation."

Reid's group built bookshelves for the local school, painted its interior, and worked on a local reforestation project. "There were also serendipitous experiences like visiting the local high school and talking to students about AIDS."

Reid says the people she met in Guatemala were inspirational. "They have very little in the way of material things, but watching them I learned about resourcefulness." She also noticed the children brought each other up, caring for and accepting each other with a care and compassion rarely seen on American playgrounds. "My motto was the teachers became learners and the students became teachers."

A decade ago, if you'd suggested someone spend a vacation working in a war-torn or impoverished location, you might have been thought crazy. But today more people are looking for ways to make the human connection, experience different cultures, and meet people. Although working vacations are not for everyone, they offer opportunities to improve quality of life and to bring home more than a suntan.

Groups Offering Volunteer Vacations
These are some of the organizations that offer getaways with a purpose:
  • Global Citizens Network—Offers volunteer vacations to several destinations abroad and in the U.S. 651-644-0960 or 800-644-9292

  • Habitat For Humanity International—An ecumenical Christian organization that builds houses in 65 countries. 912-924-6935

  • Earthwatch—Volunteers can hook up with scientific research with trips to 50 countries. 800-776-0188

  • Cross-Cultural Solutions—Sends humanitarian volunteers to India, Peru, Ghana, and Kosovo. 914-632-0022

  • Elder Hostel—Dispatches senior volunteers (many are retired) to destinations throughout the world via its "service" trips. 617-426-8056 or 877-426-8056

  • Volunteers For Peace—Sends volunteers to live in work camps in 70 countries. 800-259-2759

  • The Sierra Club—Wildlife restoration projects in nearly every state. 415-977-5522

Volunteer opportunities even can include credit unions around the world. People-to-People (PTP) is a credit union development program sponsored by the World Council of Credit Unions, the National Credit Union Foundation, and CUNA Mutual Group.

"In Zimbabwe, we say �iron sharpens iron.� So when your iron ax is not sharp enough, you use another tool to sharpen it. That�s how we see People-to-People—our skills are sharpened by exposure to credit union professionals who share their practical experiences with us," explains Paul Chimhungwe, field officer for the National Association of Cooperative Savings and Credit Unions, Zimbabwe.

PTP sets up and nurtures partnerships between emerging and developed credit union movements. Partners participate in cross-border and cross-cultural exchanges of ideas and experiences through internships, volunteer assignments, and leadership activities.

© 2000 Credit Union National Association Inc.