Volunteering on Vacation

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When Larry Kugler retired, he wanted to do something to make his heart sing. “I wanted to do things … that I really felt were important and were significant,” he says of his decision to take a volunteer vacation overseas.

Kugler, his wife Eileen, and 26-year old daughter, Sara, signed up with Calabash Tours to assist teachers at a primary school in rural South Africa. Looking back on the experience, they say the benefits to them and the community they helped were mutual. “I think one of the reasons that we did this was not just to help someone, but to grow as people,” says Eileen. “And we certainly did.”

Evolving from a millennia-old tradition of saints and sages of all religions rendering service in conjunction with their travels abroad comes a new trend — “voluntourism.” We often take for granted all that conspires to make our holidays memorable; a voluntour is a small attempt at expressing our gratitude for the Giver and his gifts — an engagement with a destination and its people in which both visitors and locals benefit each other. The destination and its residents have an opportunity to offer their culture, food, and locally crafted products, for instance, while the volunteers provide service through the project or projects coordinated for the volunteer tour group. It is this very aspect of volunteer vacations that makes them so compelling for individuals, couples, and families alike.

Karen Anthony has served as the director of alumni travel at Notre Dame University for 25 years. She organized the first voluntourism trip for alumni back in 2000. Since then, she’s had ample opportunity to interview returning alums, she says. “Two things stand out: first, individuals wish to return to the destination where they served. Second, they tell me of how the experience has improved them spiritually and touched them deeply.”

From working on a Native American reservation to helping maintain hiking trails in Patagonia, the options for voluntourism are endless. During part of a yearlong volunteer trip around the world, for instance, Debra Cummings’ family paid to volunteer at an elephant sanctuary in Northern Thailand. “It was a bit like a YMCA resident camp meets elephants,” says Cummings. The family, which included the Cummings’ 10- and 13-year-old children, spent time with the elephants, planted and harvested elephant grass to feed them, and built and repaired fences.

More and more people seem to be seeking out these kinds of opportunities. In December 2005, four months after Hurricane Katrina, the travel company Travelocity surveyed travelers about volunteering on vacation and found that 4 percent of respondents planned to do so. In Travelocity’s most recent 2009 forecast, the number currently stands at 13 percent.

But what may be more telling about the growing interest in volunteer vacations is the fact that some very disparate entities are collecting statistical information on this subject for the first time. In 2008 the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) released results of its inaugural survey conducted, in large part, because of increasing anecdotal evidence of the growing number of domestic and international volunteers in the U.S. Gulf Coast region since August 2005. CNCS estimated that in 2007, approximately 5 million Americans volunteered more than 120 miles from their homes (roughly 1.1 million of them volunteered internationally).

Sue Stephenson, vice president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company’s Community Footprints social and environmental responsibility program, notes, “Our guests began asking about voluntary service activities. We determined to create ‘Give Back Getaways’ in response to the increasing number of requests at some of our properties, including New Orleans.” Ritz-Carlton properties around the world launched the program in April 2008 to offer their guests an opportunity to spend a half-day volunteering. To further validate the trend, the Ritz-Carlton surveyed nearly 14,000 guests between April and June 2008 about their desire to participate in voluntourism over the next 12 months: 18 percent were “extremely interested” and 34 percent were “somewhat interested.”

There are some obvious benefits to a volunteer vacation — helping local communities, the spiritual benefits of taking such a trip, and connecting with God before, during, and after the process. But there are other benefits as well.

Gilberto Martinez is a resident of Tijuana, Mexico, a former seminarian, and, in his current role, hosts 35 Catholic, Jesuit, and Franciscan volunteer groups each year as the program coordinator for Via International.

“In our projects, we don’t only mix cement, we mix friendships,” he says. “Through that we end up creating a bridge between cultures; we mix friendships in order to construct bridges of solidarity.”

From working on a Native American reservation to helping maintain hiking trails in Patagonia, the options for voluntourism are endless.

Voluntourism is not without its challenges, however. Some people question the sustainability of the projects. Others wonder whether volunteers are taking paid work away from local residents. These are legitimate concerns. But what may be the biggest concern among voluntourists is “Where does the money go?” So irate was one traveler on this issue, she sent a letter to VolunTourism.org about her experience with the company that had arranged her trip: “We left behind six unhappy young volunteers who, for various reasons, had to ‘stick it out.’ All had paid a lot of money to volunteer, a few had quit jobs or taken a semester of university off, and none were doing the work they’d been led to believe they would be doing. None felt like they were making any kind of difference, and all felt overcharged, with no evidence of how their volunteer dollars were being spent.”

Nancy McGehee, associate professor at Virginia Tech, in discussing her research in Tijuana, Mexico, and Appalachia, suggests that “those who have a negative view of voluntourism should not be ignored, but rather should be embraced and included in the process, because those are the folks who can most help voluntourism to become stronger and better.” Volunteers are advised to ask trip providers whether and how the community residents have been involved in determining the projects that will best serve their village or neighborhood. Some might be wise to take a further step by engaging in environmental voluntours, such as tagging animals or sea creatures for ongoing scientific research or removing invasive plant species from wetland areas. Still others may select programs that offer direct aid to those who do not have the means of supporting themselves, as a way to circumvent this issue.

Health and safety are another challenge for voluntourism experiences. Because help is often needed in places where there may be disease, poor sanitation, and high crime and violence, volunteers must be prepared for what they may encounter. “The first part of risk management overseas,” says Bob Wurmstedt, former country director for the United States Peace Corps in Kenya, “is risk assessment and identifying risks and hazards and the impact that they might have on volunteers.” In Kenya, for instance, Wurmstedt says there is political unrest and ethnic fighting, limited transportation, flooding, drought, terrorism, and epidemics like cholera.

Even when volunteering close to home, health and safety should be addressed by volunteers. Potential voluntourists are advised to explore their own risk tolerance and select trips accordingly. They can research places they would like to visit and review the U.S. State Department’s travel Web site (travel.state.gov) for travel alerts and security information. It is also a good idea for travelers to make sure the trip provider has a safety and security plan before booking a trip, and that they themselves have the proper immunizations and insurance for medical evacuation should the need arise. Group trips may offer more safety, as long as people travel in groups of at least three in remote, rural, or off-the-beaten-path urban settings, especially at night.

Though there are challenges to resolve in the industry, voluntourists continue to speak of the benefits of traveling with others who also feel passionate about the type of work at hand and the need to do it — people who are aware of something beyond themselves and interested in being a part of it.

“I feel very lucky and privileged to have had the opportunity to see the great work that is being done in Haiti and to have had the opportunity to share the experience with such a fantastic group of people,” says Jon Myers, a Notre Dame alumnus who recently traveled to Haiti with his wife and high-school age daughter to help doctors in a local clinic.

“[My wife] and I have made great efforts to teach our children that with their blessings come even greater obligations to their community and the wider world,” Myers says. “Being able to spend a week with a group of people who understand and practice that worldview on a daily basis is an experience that will benefit [my daughter] for the rest of her life.”  CD

Photo of Katie Kasmauski courtesy of her mother, former National Geographic photographer Karen Kasmauski.

© Catholic Digest and VolunTourism.org.

Founded by David Clemmons, VolunTourism.org is an information portal that serves to educate, empower, and engage its worldwide audience in combining voluntary service with travel and tourism-related activities. The organization produces a blog, a weekly Webcast, and a quarterly newsletter, and offers customized instruction for those wishing to learn more.

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