BY SARAH HANKEL
Barb Swift traveled to Costa Rica with the Gift of Sight team. In her free time she toured some of the country’s spectacular sites.
Perhaps it was baby boomers’ lost opportunities (or those that they gained) with groups such as the Peace Corps that provided the inspiration for today’s thriving volunteer vacation industry. On the other hand, perhaps the trend was motivated by frugal explorers eager for an adventure and willing to work for it. Either way, altruistic travel is becoming more popular each year, more accessible to a broader crowd, and more varied in destination and duty.
The catchy term “voluntourism” rather says it all: a vacation in which you spend your time working on a volunteer project to benefit the community or region you are visiting. In return, the traveler’s expenses are greatly reduced, often by half, with food and accommodations usually provided. Frequently, these costs are considered tax deductible. (Tax deductions are variable and dependent on the agency that assists in the planning of your vacation.) From helping collect field data to caring for orphans with AIDS, there are myriad opportunities and a range of time commitments. Given all these various options for consideration, voluntourism is ideal for just about anybody who would prefer an adventure compared to sitting idle on a beach.
Certainly, the concept of volunteering has been around for quite sometime, and groups such as Doctors Without Borders, Habitat for Humanity, even the ’80s-era entertainment group “Up with People!” shaped today’s standard for altruistic travel.
Barb Swift of Washington, Iowa, has worked in the optical industry for nearly 15 years. Since 2003, she has served as a representative of her company in four different Give the Gift of Sight Missions. “I’ve been to Costa Rica twice, as well as Mexico and inner-city Los Angeles,” Barb says. During these missions, Barb and a team of other volunteers will work all day long screening adults and children in need of glasses and corrective lenses, sometimes seeing more than 25,000 in a two-week trip.
“The missions are a bit different than an actual volunteer vacation,” Barb explains. “You have to fill out an application, be very active in promoting Give the Gift of Sight in your community and store. There are lots of colleagues competing to be chosen for these missions.”
Doug Cutchins, co-author of Volunteer Vacations: Short-term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, writes that altourism has been going on for quite some time, but there was a significant upswing in interest following Sept. 11, 2001. He says the terrorist attacks brought out a sense of urgency to connect with others and to help, and travel agencies heeded the call to bring those people to downtown New York City. The Southeast Asia tsunami disaster in December 2005 and Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts also inspired many to plan a trip where they could pitch in.
Such was the case for Linda Schreiber of Oxford, Iowa. As a community newspaper editor and reporter, she had learned of the increasing trend in short goodwill trips. Not long after joining the Iowa City Area Development Group, terrorist attacks felled the World Trade Center, and she was motivated.
“My trip in November 2002 was actually a birthday present,” Linda says. “After 9-11, I wanted to do something that made a difference.”
In contrast to Barb’s experience, which has taken her out of the country, Linda, who has traveled all over the world, said at the time she wasn’t comfortable traveling overseas.
After copious Internet research and inspired by a testimonial from Christie Vilsack, Linda consigned with Global Volunteers, a Minnesota-based agency that provides volunteer vacation arrangements around the world and throughout the U.S.
“I chose to go to Metcalfe, Mississippi,” Linda says. “It is one of the poorest areas in the U.S.” During her adventure, Linda and a group of other travelers initially worked with the town’s mayor to determine what projects needed attention. “We painted the interior of city hall and assisted work-release prisoners. In our off-hours, we visited local attractions and enjoyed some Southern hospitality.”
While the hard-fast numbers are in constant flux, surveys conducted by Orbitz, Travelocity, and the Travel Industry Association show that more travelers are interested in voluntourism and the number of organizations that offer such adventures has doubled in the past three years.
Who is a Volunteer Vacationer?
The short answer: anyone.
Barb started her volunteer vacations in her early 40s. Linda didn’t go until she was 55. Schools, churches, and civic groups often take buses of teenagers to far-off destinations to work, and many universities and retirement living communities offer senior travel programs.
The real determining factor about volunteer vacationing is more about what you want to do instead of how old you are or what kind of physical shape you’re in. Of course, a few apparent qualities define volunteer vacationers: those who are compassionate, accepting, and adventurous.
One travel agency estimates there are more than 2,000 different volunteer vacation opportunities. Count bonobos in the Congo, fix up hiking and biking trails in Austin, go on an archeological dig in Chile, teach English in China or reading skills in West Virginia . . . anything you can think of that you ever wanted to try is available.
The only parameters: amount of time you have to vacation (periods range from 1 week to 6 months or longer) and how much you are prepared to spend (cost varies from $50 to $5,000).
Voluntours come with two obvious benefits: warm fuzzies of doing something good, and saving money on the cost of travel.
One of Barb’s most unforgettable experiences was on her third trip with Gift of Sight, during which she and her team screened and fitted more than 4,500 people with glasses in one day. Financially, it feels good too. “The missions I am chosen for do not count against my regular vacation time from work and the company pays my way.”
While Linda did pay for her trip to Mississippi, she paid less than $1,000, including room and board, for a two-week trip, and she didn’t have to plan any of it. “Some of the other volunteers really got in to singing with the kids or teaching music, but I can’t sing or read music. I was able to help them with reading and play games to engage them, and that was so much fun,” she says.
Barb and Linda have also discovered a few other perks. “It’s a great experience for your soul,” Barb explains. “It’s challenging and rewarding. You have to be creative, supportive, and solve any issues with a positive attitude. The experience gives you a different perspective about yourself and the country you visit.
“It’s exciting to work with a team of people with a like-minded goal. It tests your abilities in areas you may not be familiar with. You find your strengths when you have a passion for helping others with team support.”
Linda echoes those thoughts, and talks enthusiastically about her fellow volunteers whom she befriended. “The youngest was a 30-something writer for the New York Times—he was great; two married couples—one 40-something Jewish couple from Massachusetts and one retired couple from Alaska. Three or four in our group were Jewish, one African-American, and my roommate, a divorced woman who worked for the railroad, was from Minnesota. She had been on one or two other volunteer trips.”
A few other plusses: the organization provides education on local culture and customs; accommodations are all pre-arranged; traveling with a formed group offers improved safety; and depending on the organization you work with, your trip could be tax deductible.
Swimming with the Turtles
In August, I will be going on my first volunteer vacation. It is something I have wanted to do for the past three years. I will be traveling with a new friend to Punta Banco, Costa Rica, to work with a sea turtle rescue program and hatchery. At night, we’ll comb the beaches looking for turtle nests, carefully collect the eggs, take them to the hatchery, and help there. During the day, we’re hoping to master surfing, practicing our Spanish and swimming with the turtles.