Generally speaking, you don't want a crowbar or a wheelbarrow to feature prominently in your vacation photos. Or rubble. Or poverty (unless, perhaps, it is the exotic kind—a shoeless boy with oil-black hair; a woman carrying vegetables to the market). But that is just the kind of experience Daniel Johnson sought out earlier this year when he organized a trip to coastal Mississippi with a few dozen officemates from Credit Suisse New York. "All along Route 10, from New Orleans, you could see the devastation," the 45-year-old managing director recalls. And then there was Biloxi: "It was run over by the hurricane," he says. "We were ready to work as soon as we stepped off the bus."
A generation ago, traveling to volunteer was something for idealistic Peace Corps kids who wanted to save the world and see it, too. But in the 1990's, volunteering emerged as a kind of basic American value, and the falling cost of travel left been-there-done-that vacationers looking for more authentic ways to experience unfamiliar places. Today, a growing number of nonprofit travel organizations offer everything from archaeological digs in Europe to home construction for low-income families in South Asia. Some trips are cheap and difficult—short-term versions of the work-travel programs that young people pioneered in the 1950's and 1960's. Others come with guided tours, private chefs, and soft beds at the end of a short workday.
Johnson discovered volunteering six years ago, when his company organized a day of service at one of the poorest schools in Florida during a work retreat. After he returned to New York, Johnson started tutoring at area schools. He also spent a week in Phuket, Thailand, helping locals rebuild after the 2004 tsunami. When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast last August, he was eager to take his efforts back on the road.
Although Johnson could have just asked his friends and colleagues to write checks toward the rebuilding effort (which many people did—big checks, too), traveling there would mean helping in a more tangible way. And it would give volunteers a chance to see firsthand what had really happened during the storm and what might become of this suddenly endangered corner of America. So he organized a volunteer vacation to the Gulf Coast: all travelers would pay their own way and go on their own time. Ultimately, more than two dozen friends and co-workers signed up.
Using Biloxi as a base, the Credit Suisse group met up with Hands On, a large relief organization that sends volunteers all around the Gulf Coast to clean neighborhoods, gut flooded buildings, and repair schools and playgrounds. Johnson's group claimed cots in a field of drab canvas tents behind a local church and, in the evening, gathered with more than 150 other volunteers to sign up for work projects.
"We got up the next morning ready to conquer the world," Johnson says. He joined a team that was digging through the rubble of Biloxi's Jefferson Davis Home and Presidential Library. "We recovered quite a few weapons, swords, rifles, and cannonballs," he recalls. Museum staffers supervised, and when an artifact emerged, they told the volunteers stories about its place in Southern history. Other crews gutted houses and refurbished a women's center. Johnson's wife, Jackie, walked door-to-door with a street team asking residents about their struggles and needs. "It kind of changed her life, changed her perspective," Johnson says; she was overwhelmed to see so much poverty and tragedy and such resilience in the face of it all. And they both felt intimately welcomed by the community. "We talked about how many strangers came up to us and said, 'God bless you,' " he says.
When the group returned to New York, their stories spread throughout the office. Sensing wider interest, the company's nonprofit arm got the idea to plan additional vacations to the Gulf Coast. Quickly, more than 300 employees signed up—Johnson among them—for a trip to New Orleans. The trips grew more comfortable: volunteers took to staying in hotels rather than the Hands On tents and became regulars at small, family-owned barbecue shacks that had survived the storm— boisterous places like the Joint, with long tables, open kitchens, sweet pulled pork, and rich po'boys. But the workdays stayed long.
In a country as vast and varied as the United States, an unfamiliar city can be as slow to reveal itself as a village halfway around the world. Volunteer travelers, however, can penetrate local culture in a way traditional tourists seldom do, whether they are in New Orleans or New Delhi. Not all do-gooder tourism brings equal perks to a community, though. In the developing world especially, locals sometimes wonder why wealthy Americans who can barely drive a nail want to build houses or dig ditches in places where competent manual labor costs pennies.
The Gulf Coast, though, was desperate for able bodies after the hurricane. "People from outside the state have come in droves, rolled up their sleeves, and helped us get our lives back together," says Bill Stallworth, a Biloxi city council member who set up a command center to handle the influx of volunteers. According to recent research by Independent Sector, a nonprofit coalition of charities and foundations, each of those volunteers saved the region about $18 an hour. They also gave a direct boost to the local economy. Johnson's crew bought all of their supplies on-site, paying particular attention to independent stores and restaurants—places that would benefit from a spike in business.
But these visitors have meant something more than cash and free labor. "When you go inside a moldy, wet house, all messed up, you pull that debris out and put it by the side of the road, you give something to that family that can't be measured," Stallworth explains. "You pulled all the despair out and replaced it with hope."
Tourists are not going to rebuild the Gulf Coast, develop poor nations, or spread English to remote communities. But put to the right kind of work in the right place, they can help, and see the world—even the United States—from a rare perspective.
Douglas McGray is a fellow at the New America Foundation. He has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and West.
From Mississippi to Xi'an, China, here are six ways for travelers to get involved and experience local culture:
Travelers to the Gulf Coast who are interested in volunteering can contact HANDS ON to get involved in area projects. 228/257-6094; www.handsonnetwork.org.
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY INTERNATIONAL is also organizing pay-your-own-way trips. 229/924-6935; www.habitat.org.
HEREDIA, COSTA RICA
EXPERIENTIAL LEARNING INTERNATIONAL's Costa Rican program uses volunteers to advise and teach at-risk youth in a city near San José. 303/321-8278; www.eliabroad.org; two-week trips from $835.
Participants in GLOBAL VOLUNTEERS' trips to the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation get a firsthand look at peace negotiations in Ireland while helping with the center's upkeep. 800/487-1074; www.globalvolunteers.org; week-long trips from $1,895.
U.K.-based organization I-TO-I combines wildlife viewing with AIDS relief in a trek through game parks in South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, and Zambia, punctuated by stints at an AIDS center. 44-870/333-2332; www.i-to-i.com; 25-day trips from $2,595.
Travelers on GLOBAL CROSSROAD's Thailand program teach English in the ancient capital city of Ayutthaya, north of Bangkok. 800/413-2008; www.globalcrossroad.org; two-week trips from $1,199.
CROSS-CULTURAL SOLUTIONS' volunteers offer support at the Shaanxi Hospital, outside of Beijing. 800/380-4777; www.crossculturalsolutions.org; two-week trips from $2,389.