Volunteer Vacations: How Rewarding Work Yields Unique Experience and Perspective

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 Ecuador’s tropical forest, patrolling canoe trails in the Alaskan wildlife refuge or teaching English in China. Some trips are limited to certain groups of professionals, like doctors or lawyers, but the opportunities are limitless, both functionally and geographically. Earthwatch’s sites, for instance, range from Inner Mongolia to the Outer Hebrides and from Hudson Bay to Uruguay. The fact that Volunteer Vacations is now in its seventh edition within a little over a decade is an indication of the growing popularity of this movement. 

Veteran Volunteers

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 Romania in July 1999 and the second was for a week in Vermont in December that same year. Last year, they went to Costa Rica and this year they’ll be working on an Indian reservation in Montana.

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 Romania. The Kerzners were part of a 23-member Global Volunteers team from 14 states: half of the team worked at the hospital and the other half taught conversational English at the local high school.

“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 Bellows Falls, Vt., through a Global Volunteers’ project. They were part of a team of 13 volunteers, ranging in age from 12 to 79, who refurbished a community resource center and helped sort and serve donated food at a drop-in center.

“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 Costa Rica, where they also worked to refurbish a community center.

“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 Silver Spring, Md. In 1993, she spent 10 days in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica sprucing up a parsonage that had been devastated by a hurricane. Two years later, she spent two weeks in Tobago putting a roof on a school and repairing water damage inside. Every year, she volunteers with “Christmas in April,” a national organization that refurbishes houses for low-income homeowners. Through these various projects, she has mastered basic manual labor skills and put those skills to good use, both in the United States and abroad.

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 Vietnam on a team of nine with Global Volunteers. We taught English to students of all ages at a language school and two of our members taught doctors and nurses at the local hospital.

As Jerry Gastrand, a retiree from Venice, Fla., recalls, “I learned more than I taught.” This was true for all of us.

‘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 Ohio or Kentucky with the American Hiking Society for only $80 a trip, while three weeks of teaching English as a second language in the Chinese city of Xian with Global Volunteers will set you back $2,395, not including the relatively expensive airfare. Earthwatch charges $1,895 for a two-week archeological dig in Thailand and more than $3,000 for several weeks of research, including accommodations, meals and equipment.

The Kerzners paid almost $2,000 each for their two-week stay in Romania, but used frequent-flyer miles to cover their airfare. I also used frequent-flyer miles for part of my trip, but managed to spend closer to $3,000 ($2,195 for the program fee, plus intra-Asia flights, visas and other expenses). My sister’s group paid for their own airfare to both Jamaica and Tobago, reimbursed their hosts for food and brought all their own tools (except ladders!). Those who take volunteer vacations through nonprofit organizations like Global Volunteers can take a tax write-off for part of the program fee. 

Proletariat to Posh

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 Spain or in a simple field-research station in Jackson Hole, Wyo. As Earthwatch stresses in its publicity, “If you want cable TV, piña coladas by the pool, and a quick drive past the sights, this is not for you.” Lodging with Global Volunteers ranges from basic dormitories in Tanzania to deluxe rooms in a four-star historic hotel in southern Italy.

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 Vermont, they stayed in a private home.

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 Jamaica, my sister, Kate, shared one room with all the other women in the group, sleeping on thin mattresses on the cement floor of a classroom.

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 Vietnam, Sheila and Ed Braun planned and executed our outings. Among our many adventures, we visited (in ankle-deep floodwaters!) the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh’s father and took a boat trip along the overgrown jungle inlets of the Mekong Delta.

: 10pt; FONT-FAMILY: Verdana">When we left Cao Lanh, some of our group stayed to visit other parts of Vietnam and others went to tour other countries in the region. I combined my volunteer vacation with a stopover in Bangkok with friends and took a memorable trip to Angkor Wat and the other temples in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

: 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 Romania. For both Joan and Arnold, the trip was “an opportunity to explore new vistas.”

: 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 Romania in July and the hardships of living in a foreign culture, she says, “the intense pleasure derived from the work easily offset the minor inconveniences of day-to-day living.”

It’s a far cry from those who travel with a “if this is Tuesday, it must be Brussels” tour group or who hang out in resorts far removed from the local culture. Volunteer vacations are obviously not for everyone, but those who have done it know that it’s the giver who gets.

Bob Popken, a Vietnam War veteran from Minnesota, puts it in perspective: “I think we changed some lives in our three weeks in Cao Lanh, but I know for sure that it changed my own.”

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 USA, 2002.

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, Chicago Review Press, 7th ed., 1999.

Volunteering: 101 Ways You Can Improve the World and Your Life, by Douglas M. Lawson, Alti Publishing, 1998. 


American Hiking Society, Silver Spring, Md., 301-565-6704; Clearing back-country hiking trails throughout the United States at the location of your choice.

Amizade Volunteer Programs, Pittsburgh, Pa., 888-973-4443; Amizade (a Portuguese word for friendship) offers community service opportunities worldwide.

Cross-Cultural Solutions, New Rochelle, N.Y., 800-380-4777; Offers three-week (and longer) health-care, education and social development projects in India, Ghana, Peru and Kosovo.

Earthwatch, Watertown, Mass., 800-776-0188; Runs more than 140 archeological, natural history and cultural projects in 20 U.S. states and 50 countries.

Global Volunteers, St. Paul, Minn., 800-487-1074; Coordinates 125 teams of volunteers on economic development projects across the United States and abroad.

Habitat for Humanity International, Americus, Ga., 912-924-6935; Projects involve building houses for low-income families in all 50 U.S. states and 63 other countries.

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 Mekong Delta area of Vietnam.