Travel can be transformational, and no more so than when you engage in your destination and make a difference. The smile of child you've helped in Delhi or Detroit may eclipse any monument or museum. A glimpse of a snow leopard in the Altai or a proffered paw at a Utah animal sanctuary can be your reward for pitching in. Sheryl Kayne, as she prepared her book "Immersion Travel USA: The Best and Most Meaningful Volunteering, Living And Learning Excursions," interviewed a mom from Texas "whose family tradition is to volunteer in some way everywhere they go --- from visiting kids in hospitals, cleaning up state parks or beaches, or participating in specific organized activities." (See References 1)
Discuss options for your volunteer project in advance with your travel agent. "To be authentic, it should be left to the operators to choose and plan," recommends Jacquie Whitt, director of U.S. operations for Adios Adventure Travel, which focuses on trips to Peru and Ecuador. "By providing details about the ages and physical abilities of the members of your group, we can arrange an activity that adds depth to your travel experience." You can help clear rocks from a community garden, assist with repairs to damaged mud-brick homes or build a playground. Skills are not needed, Whitt says: "Local tradesmen are experts and guide the volunteers." (See References 2)
Ask your hotel if it has formed partnerships with the local community. "An increasing number of hotels around the world are offering volunteer opportunities as part of a guest's stay," Kayne observes (see References 1). For example, David Leventhal, owner of the Playa Viva boutique hotel in Mexico, organizes beach and river cleanups, and guests can help release baby sea turtles back into the ocean and plant vegetables in an organic garden. "Integration with the community is very important to us in creating authentic and meaningful vacations for our guests," says Leventhal, who also organized a "painting party" of the local school with guests and local parents. (See References 3)
Add a few hours of volunteering to your cruise or resort vacation by visiting a school, orphanage or other organization in Caribbean and Pacific ports of call. "A volunteer vacation doesn't have to mean that every day is spent giving back," says Nancy Schretter, founder of the non-profit organization Together For Good. "Many people want to do both, but don't have the time to take two separate vacations. It's possible to combine both humanitarian activities with a regular vacation at the beach or on a cruise," Schretter says. Bring school supplies, vitamins, carpentry tools, books, clothing and shoes to donate. Notify the cruise line if you are bringing bulky items such as desktop computers, and ask your connecting airline if it needs a letter from the organization to which you are donating so you can receive a luggage waiver. (See References 4)
Work to help animals or clean a national park. The possibilities are limitless: You can volunteer at Maine's Acadia National Park any Saturday morning, Kayne notes, or assist the Wolf Recovery Project at the Grand Canyon. Visit the Best Friends Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah for a few hours, a day, a week or longer; children between the ages of 6 and 17 may work with sanctuary animals, at the discretion of staff and accompanied by an adult, to clean, groom, feed and socialize dogs and cats, birds, rabbits, horses, pot-bellied pigs and wildlife. (See References 1)
Immerse yourself in a grassroots development program, living in a community that needs help, if you can spare a week or more as part of your vacation. For example, Washington, D.C.-based "voluntourism" organization Ubelong offers placements in South America and Southeast Asia, where you can help with local needs for education, women's empowerment, health, the environment, caregiving, construction and infrastructure (see References 5).
- To learn more about specific vacation volunteering options, visit the websites of African Impact, Biosphere Expeditions, Earthwatch Institute, Inside/Out Humanitourism, Planeterra, Road Scholar --- formerly known as Elderhostel --- and the International Ecotourism Society. (See References 6)
- Sheryl Kayne; Volunteer Vacation Expert; Weston, Connecticut
- Jacquie Whitt; Director, U.S. Operations, Adios Adventure Travel; Virginia Beach, Virginia
- David Leventhal; Owner, Playa Viva Hotel; Playa Viva, Mexico
- Nancy Schretter; Founder, Travel For Good; McLean, Virginia
- Ubelong: Programs
- Greenloons; Voluntourism Resources; Irene Lane
Rogue Parrish is a writer and editor with Demand Media Studios.
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