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Do Good, Get a Tan

“Travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” — Miriam Beard

For some, the ideal vacation is a week on the beach, slathered in sunscreen, relaxing and reading a trashy novel. For others, a vacation’s purpose is to go someplace new, eat great food, and visit a few historical sites or museums. Yet, some travelers want more from a vacation than a tan and some souvenirs. For them, the ideal vacation not only includes visiting a new place and interacting with its people, but it’s also about giving something back to the community at the same time.

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Luckily for these adventuresome altruists, there are many tour operators that focus on vacations with a volunteering component. Somewhere between a casual day of work at a soup kitchen and the long-term commitment required by the Peace Corp., a volunteer vacation lets travelers do something good for others while enjoying exotic experiences that are inaccessible to the average tourist. From tracking elephants across the stark Namibian Dessert to helping a museum curator design a new exhibit of indigenous art, volunteering vacations offer travelers unusual and rewarding experiences that go well beyond the beach.

As jet-setting movie stars like George Clooney and Angelina Jolie have drawn more attention to global issues through their travels, volunteer vacations have become more appealing to the casual tourist. Volunteer vacations are no longer exclusively the domain of the especially dedicated but have become mainstream, says Ross Wehner, managing director of Volunteer Adventures, a Denver-based organizer of international volunteer experiences. He finds that volunteer trips aren’t only appealing to young people, but professionals looking for a career break, and retired people who want to do something meaningful with their free time are also getting involved.

“The 1960’s were all about relaxing vacations; in the 80’s vacations were all about being active or seeking adventure. Now people are seeking meaningful vacations,” Wehner says. “People have a very quiet but desperate need to find meaning in their lives.”

September 11 is part of the reason that volunteering has become so popular, Wehner explains. “After September 11, Americans became concerned about the way the world viewed the U.S. Then natural disasters like the tsunami in Asia, and Katrina caused thousands of volunteers to go and help out,” he says.

Heather Lopez, owner of Kindred Spirits Tour and Travel, also thinks September 11 contributed to the increased interest in volunteering abroad. “Especially after 9/11, people want to get back to the priorities and values that mean the most to them. Family is a big part of that. Parents who take their kids on a family volunteering experience are teaching their children how to give back to the community,” Lopez says. “That kind of trip is not just about bonding with one’s own family, but about building on cross-cultural relationships, giving back, and connecting.”

While many people interested in volunteer vacations are college-age, Wehner said his company has seen a sharp increase in demand from professionals, who have a short amount of vacation time that they want to use to do something both useful and personally rewarding. “We are seeing more and more adults who are looking to take a career break. That is the fastest growing part of our business,” he says.

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Volunteering vacations give busy professionals a chance to try their hand at working in a new field such as teaching, construction, or scientific research. While teaching English in China, helping an entomologist study caterpillars in Louisiana, or helping an archeologist preserve a dig site in Albania, volunteers can use their vacation time to learn new skills as well as about a new place.

“The key to a successful program is to make sure people really understand what they’re getting into,” Wehner says. “Different projects have different comfort levels and physical work requirements. Some are more demanding than others so we try to steer people towards the right projects.”

For volunteers to have a good experience on their vacation it is also important to make sure the community is passionate about the visitor’s involvement and volunteers are placed where they can do the most good, Lopez says. “For our projects, it is the community that determines what is needed. Our volunteer projects are something that the community has outlined and helps support.”

“Our job is to find the best non-profits that are out there,” said Wehner. “We make sure that part of the non-profit’s mission is to work with volunteers. We don’t want our volunteers to be a distraction. The organizations we help need to be able to provide housing, meals, and meaningful work. Then we market their project and prepare the volunteers for their experience. At the end of the day we deliver a volunteer and donation.”

When well managed, volunteer vacations are a win-win situation for all parties involved. People from affluent nations get new experiences and the chance to feel that they’ve done something good while communities in developing nations receive some support to help them tackle social, cultural and ecological challenges. Best of all, by working together on a common goal, volunteers get to really know members of their host community.

“Many are so inspired by their trip that they come back and rally their community to fundraise for the project and community they volunteered with,” Lopez says. “I hear all the time from clients that their trip was a life changing experience.”