Volunteering on Vacation

Spending quality time together takes on a whole new meaning when you travel with your family on a volunteer vacation.


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Old tractor tires and soda bottles weren't the only items stuck in the mud along the banks of the Little Sioux River in Iowa. As Dillon Hicks, 11, stepped from the canoe he shared with his grandfather, Doug, he sunk into the soft muck at water's edge, lost his balance, and tumbled into the river. After thrashing about for a moment, the life-jacket-clad boy managed to climb up the muddy bank and yell to his grandfather, "That must have been 20 feet deep!"

Wading in ankle-deep mud and getting soaked in chilly water were two hazards that Doug and his wife, Denice, and their grandchildren Dillon and Brianne, 13, faced during their week of canoeing and camping. But the trip was more than just family fun -- the Hicks were cleaning up trash along one of Iowa's waterways through an annual volunteer program, Project AWARE (A Watershed Awareness River Expedition), hosted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.

Learning Through Doing

The idea of using a vacation to do good is appealing to many families, yet volunteer travel isn't simply an alternative to typical vacations -- it's an opportunity to immerse your family in a new culture or part of the country while helping others. Although international volunteer vacations often draw families to exotic locales, opportunities may exist in your own backyard. Whether you volunteer within your state or region for a weekend, or travel to a part of the country you've never visited before, your family is bound to come away with a sense of accomplishment -- and wonderful memories.

Narrow Down the Choices

Hundreds of volunteer organizations across the country are in need of help. Consider where you'd like to visit, what sort of work you wish to do, and how much money you're willing to spend, then learn as much as you can about the projects you're interested in and how your family can contribute.

If someone in your household is particularly good with his or her hands, sign up to help build houses with Habitat for Humanity in a part of the country that you want to explore. Have a budding archaeologist under your roof? Consider spending a week digging alongside archaeologists and learning about Pueblo culture at Crow Canyon Archeological Center in Colorado.

Some projects, such as Global Volunteers' programs in low-income areas of Mississippi and West Virginia, involve working on community improvement projects and tutoring children. Others, including opportunities with the National Park Service Volunteers-In-Parks program, let you roll up your sleeves and help maintain some of the country's most stunning national parks.

Care for Community

For Carol North of St. Paul, Minnesota, working side by side with her children to help communities in need is a pivotal part of many vacations. Carol has taken her family on several volunteer trips, including to rural Mexico and the Navajo Nation.

"I want them to experience life in a developing community and the best way to do that is by living alongside local people," Carol says. "It's a perspective that they wouldn't get in a hotel or resort community."

Recently, Carol served as a team leader for Global Citizens Network, which sends volunteers to help rural communities around the world (find out more at globalcitizens.org, or by calling 800-644-9292). Carol's team was involved in a community-building project with the Quileute Native American tribe in La Push, Washington. Her daughter, Madeline, 16, and her sisters-in-law accompanied her on the trip. While performing tasks such as weeding, mowing, cleaning, and cooking, the volunteers met tribal leaders and elders, children, storytellers, woodcarvers, and fishermen, among others. "Everyone in the town was very welcoming and proud of their heritage. It was inspiring," Madeline says.

The opportunity to interact with people from all walks of life is an alluring aspect of volunteering. In La Push, Carol and her family listened as the Quileute people shared their culture and stories with the volunteers. "We were not treated as tourists, but as community members and friends," Carol says. She recalls the highlight of the trip when Madeline was recognized for her work during a healing and drumming circle that the volunteers attended. The evening included the Quileute tradition of gifting blankets, most of which were given away to community members. At the end of the evening, Frank, the volunteers' primary contact for the week, also gave a blanket to Madeline for her quiet, behind-the-scenes leadership. Madeline recalls that moment fondly, but it's the bigger lessons of the week that will stay with her. "I learned that you can't just go into a village and have an idea about how you want to change it," Madeline says. "You have to join together with the community."

Learn a Little, Contribute a Lot

Even labor-intensive projects aren't all sweat and hard work. Most service vacations also provide the opportunity to make friends, see spectacular sites, and even learn something new.

"Project AWARE wasn't just working, it was fun," says Denice Hicks, whose family helped collect enough trash to fill more than 23 dump trucks during the project. "After we set up our tents and had our showers each night, we'd have some relaxation time, but we also had different programs." The volunteers had the opportunity to learn about such topics as geology, wild edibles, nature photography, astronomy, and butterfly gardening. "We acquired a stronger belief in the value of protecting our natural resources. Plus, the beauty of the river definitely stays in your mind, and the time we spent with our grandchildren is invaluable," she says.

Make a Difference

In cost, many volunteer vacations are comparable to or more reasonable than traditional leisure travel. As an added perk, parts of your trip may be tax deductible.

Some service trips cost little more than the gas money it takes to get to your destination. Once they reached the Little Sioux River, the Hicks' week amounted to about $15 per person each day. To take part in American Hiking Society's one- or two-week vacations, participants pay a fee of $120, or $95 for members, as well as their share of the provided food and personal transportation costs to get to the site. Some trips may be priced as much as a typical vacation, however. Global Volunteers projects in the United States run from $650 to $750, excluding airfare. An Earthwatch Institute project ranges from $995 to $2,595, not including travel expenses.

When selecting a project, be sure to check age restrictions. Many volunteer vacations require participants to be 16 years or older, but all-ages trips are becoming available. Earthwatch, for example, offers archaeology programs for families with young children at places such as the Mammoth Site in South Dakota. For more information, visit earthwatch.org or call 800-776-0188.

Someday you too might reminisce about that vacation when you picked up enough trash to fill a house. Perhaps the results will be even more tangible. "Some people make life-altering decisions after living in a developing village. Decisions to downsize, change careers, even something as simple as making a conscious decision to waste less water. It can be a profound experience," Carol says.

Family and travel writer Julie Collins is a frequent contributor to Better Homes and Gardens.

Originally published in Better Homes and Gardens magazine, June 2006.

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