By Sybilla Green Dorros
When I went to check out a copy of Bill McMillon’s Volunteer Vacations from my local library, the librarian rolled her eyes and said, “You must be kidding! My idea of a vacation is sitting on a beach, doing absolutely nothing at all. I can’t imagine working on a vacation.”
Her response is typical of those who consider the term “volunteer vacation” an oxymoron. Fortunately, there are tens of thousands of people who don’t share her view. Many are baby boomers who were inspired by the idealism of John F. Kennedy to join the Peace Corps in the ’60s. Now, 40 years later, they may not be able to give up two years of their lives. But they are willing to forfeit two weeks or more of their vacation time in order to contribute to society – their own or someone else’s.
AMILY: Verdana">In his book, McMillon describes more than 2,000 ways worldwide to have a great vacation while lending a hand to a worthy cause, such as planting trees in
Joan and Arnold Kerzner, who became grandparents shortly after their first volunteer vacation, are now planning their fourth such trip. Their first was for two weeks in
AMILY: Verdana">Like many in their generation, the Kerzners had fantasized about joining the Peace Corps, but – because of personal and professional obligations – couldn’t make the two-year commitment. They have always been active members of their community and have a strong belief in the importance of volunteering. Some years ago, they had heard about an organization called Global Volunteers and decided it was time to sign up.
Joan Kerzner is a director of mental health policy development and her husband, Arnold, is a child psychiatrist. During their first volunteer vacation, they “played” with 33 babies in a failure-to-thrive nursery in a hospital in Barlad, a city in eastern
“Within days we were greeting our babies in Romanian,” Joan reports. “Soon we had them sitting, crawling, standing, walking and babbling, discovering the outdoors and, most important, experiencing the sensation of touching and being touched and held.”
For their second volunteer vacation the Kerzners remained stateside, working in
“The great part about this team was that nine of the 13 members were part of one multigenerational family,” Joan recalls. “What a great way to model community service to the younger generation!”
In keeping with Global Volunteers’ policy, their 13-member team was matched with local volunteers. Through these local volunteers and the visitors to the drop-in center, Joan and Arnold were able to connect with people from the community. The same was true during their program in
“We worked shoulder-to-shoulder with members of the local community,” Joan says. “It was tough physical work, but very rewarding.”
My sister, Kate Lewis-Brown, in her late 50s, did two volunteer vacations through her church in
Compared to these veterans, I am a neophyte. I took my first volunteer vacation last October. I don’t have good manual labor skills, I get bored playing with children and I’m not into archeological digs, so I was at a loss as to how I could make a difference. I finally decided that, since I can speak English, I could teach conversational English. I wanted to go somewhere I had never been and ended up in
As Jerry Gastrand, a retiree from
‘You Have to Pay to Work?!’
Most organizations require the volunteer to pay for transportation costs and other expenses. Costs vary tremendously.
You can clear back-country hiking trails in
The Kerzners paid almost $2,000 each for their two-week stay in
The accommodations also vary tremendously, depending on the organization and the project. If you volunteer for Earthwatch, you might live on a boat off the coast of
The Kerzners’ hotel in Barlad was hardly four-star, but it was the best (i.e., only!) hotel in the city, with a comfortable room and private bath. In
Our hotel in Cao Lanh, a provincial town in the Mekong Delta, was simple but adequate. The food was better than adequate, with multiple dishes of Vietnamese specialties and fresh fruit at every meal. Global Volunteers furnished plenty of bottled water to make sure that no one got sick during the stay.
On her trip to
All Work and No Play?
People who take volunteer vacations usually try to squeeze in some local sight-seeing during their free time or on the weekends, or travel at the end. With advice from their Romanian liaison/translator, the Kerzners and the other volunteers on their project spent the weekends traveling around the country and visiting places of interest.
: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">During our stay in
: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">When we left Cao Lanh, some of our group stayed to visit other parts of
: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">While our goal was to make a difference – and we definitely worked hard at it – we nonetheless got to experience off-the-beaten-path tourism and had fun doing so. We forged deep – and hopefully lasting – friendships in a relatively short period of time.
Meaningful Memories Making a Difference
: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">“To say the experience was gratifying is an understatement,” Joan Kerzner says of their two weeks in
: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">They came home with more than photographs of the country’s tourist attractions. They have the memories of the people they met and worked with in the hospital, especially the babies they held and nurtured during those two weeks.
N: 0in 0in 12pt">“The memory of those babies is etched in my soul,” Joan explains. To make sure the same is true for the babies and they don’t feel abandoned yet again, Global Volunteers arranged for follow-up teams to work in the same hospital over the next year. According to Kerzner, about 30 percent of these babies, ages 2 months to 4 years, will return to their families, a few will be adopted, and the rest will go to orphanages.
After going on a volunteer vacation, a regular vacation sitting on a beach may seem boring.
N: 0in 0in 12pt">“The greatest part about it,” Joan says, “is that you have maximum exposure to another culture in a relatively short period of time.” And, despite the sweltering heat in
It’s a far cry from those who travel with a “if this is Tuesday, it must be
Bob Popken, a Vietnam War veteran from
Popken was so smitten by his experience in Vietnam last October that he volunteered to go back again in last February, this time to a project in the seacoast city of Vung Tau. Let this be a warning: volunteer vacations are not only rewarding, they’re habit-forming!
N: 0in 0in 12pt">RESOURCES
Alternatives to the Peace Corps: A Directory of Third World & U.S. Volunteer Opportunities, by Filomena Geise, Food First Books, 9th ed., 1999.
The Back Door Guide to Short Term Job Adventures: Internships, Extraordinary Experiences, Seasonal Jobs, Volunteering and Work Abroad, by Michael Landes, Ten Speed Press, 2001.
How to Live Your Dreams of Volunteering Overseas, by Joseph Collins et al., Penguin
The International Directory of Voluntary Work, by Victoria Pybus, Vacation-Work, 2000.
Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, by Bill McMillon,
Volunteering: 101 Ways You Can Improve the World and Your Life, by Douglas M. Lawson, Alti Publishing, 1998.
American Hiking Society,
Amizade Volunteer Programs,
Habitat for Humanity International,
Sybilla Green Dorros, a freelance writer and former expatriate, took her first volunteer vacation in October 2001. She taught English in Cao Lanh, a provincial town in the