Volunteer vacations vary widely, not only in intent but also in cost, accommodations, the amount of free time, and the physical effort required, so research carefully before signing up.
We've received scores of questions on volunteer travel—here, some answers, plus firsthand accounts from three families who headed out, pitched in, and returned home with a renewed sense of purpose. And isn't that what you really want from a vacation anyway?
Q: Where can we offer hands-on help in this country?
A: If you want to aid rural America, contact Global Volunteers* (800/487-1074; www.globalvolunteers.org; $500 per adult per week, $400 per child, including food and accommodations), which has 25 programs across the U.S.A. Build a playground at the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana; befriend residents of the Lakota Nation senior center at Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota; tutor the children of migrant workers in Florida or kids in an impoverished Appalachian town.
Maybe you'd rather volunteer in an urban area. Contact City Cares (404/875-7334; www.citycares.org), a national organization that has affiliates in 31 American cities. Ask about family-friendly projects: you might help out with a clothing drive, sort donated books, or assist a senior with basic housekeeping. (You'll need to schedule a 45-minute orientation prior to volunteering.)
* Note: All of the organizations mentioned offer a variety of volunteer opportunities, and programs change according to needs.
Q: We want to do our part, but we also really need a break. Are volunteer vacations at all relaxing?
A: For a project that combines work and play, check out the six-day sessions run by the Sousson Foundation (805/434-0299; www.sousson.org; $985 per person, including food and use of camping gear), which assigns volunteers to national parks in the West. Spend the first three days helping to plant a forest of 15,000 trees as a memorial to the victims of September 11 in Sequoia National Park, in central California. Then take a llama (!) trek with your volunteer group along the High Sierra Trail.
ALSO CONSIDER: When in London, you can pitch in for a day. Clear ponds and build log piles for hedgehogs in city parks with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers (44-1491/821-600; www.btcv.org). You can book in advance or just call on the morning you want to volunteer to find out where work is scheduled for that day.
Q: We're eager to do something for needy children, but our own kids are too young to roll up their sleeves. What can we do?
A: You can help now, and prepare for a future trip, by sponsoring a child in one of 43 developing countries through Childreach (800/556-7918; www.childreach.org). You donate $22 a month, and the organization assists the child's family in numerous ways. It might give the parents business training or drill a well for their community. You receive information about the child's situation, along with photos (one every six months). Correspond as often as you like. When your own kids get older, you can all travel to meet your sponsored child—Childreach encourages, and often helps arrange, visits.
Q: Our son, age 16, is a budding naturalist. Can volunteers help with animal studies anywhere?
A: Through the Earthwatch Institute (800/776-0188; www.earthwatch.org; trips include meals and ground transportation), families can aid scientists in need of free (but serious) research assistants. So pick your son's favorite animal and go: Bushwhack and collect moose bones in Michigan's Isle Royale National Park (nine days; $795 per person for tent camping); study ele-phants and giraffes in Namibia (14 days; $2,495 per person for tent camping); or venture to Western Australia's Useless Loop peninsula and build fences to keep predators away from the endangered marsupial called the bettong (12 days; $1,895 per person for shared rooms at a field station).
GOOD DEAL: Camp out at Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain Sanctuary, a refuge for birds of prey. The Sierra Club (415/977-5522; www.sierraclub.org/outings; $375 per adult, $245 per child eight and up, including communally prepared food; participants supply camping gear) is running a family program June 16 through 22, its first here. You'll stock bird feeders and use field guides to study and identify the area's plants, animals, and insects.
Q: We'd like to immerse our kids (ages 12, 13, and 15) and ourselves in a foreign culture.
A: Through Global Citizens Network (800/644-9292; www.globalcitizens.org; $1,650 per person for three weeks, including ground transportation, meals, and accommodations in a community house) you can help build a health-care center in Rombo, a Kenyan farming village at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, so that members of the Masai tribe won't have to hike six miles to see a doctor. Perks: zebras, giraffes, elephants, and wildebeests.
GOOD DEAL: Heifer International (800/422-0474; www.heifer.org; $285 per person per week, including meals, activities, and double rooms at the Heifer Lodge), an organization that provides food and income-producing farm animals to needy families worldwide, is holding intergenerational programs throughout the summer at its Heifer Ranch & Global Village in Perryville, Arkansas. Weed gardens and feed water buffalo while learning about sustainable living in the Third World.
Renée Bacher, a mother of three who lives in Louisiana, writes frequently for Parents and Redbook.
FIELD REPORT: Restoring a section of the Colorado Trail
DESTINATION: The Rocky Mountains
PROGRAM: Colorado Trail Foundation (303/384-3729, ext. 113; www.coloradotrail.org)
COST: One week, $40 per person, one weekend, $20, for food and tools; participants supply camping gear.
"Years ago, I was mesmerized by a coffee-table book about the Colorado Trail, which winds through nearly 500 miles of the Rockies; it was built and is maintained by volunteers, who work in crews during the summer. Because I spend most of my life in a suit, I thought it would be fun to dig in the dirt in such a beautiful area. So when our eldest son, Andy, turned 15, I signed us up. For a week, we cleared overgrowth and rebuilt footbridges above Breckenridge. I loved watching my son, normally shy—and the only minor in our group of 16—form friendships with people so much older: the female attorney he joked with while hauling brush; the four grandmothers who taught him to play bridge by the campfire. Andy said his favorite part was the people. For me, it was hearing his take on life, in our tent, right before we fell asleep." —Tom Brooksher, telecommunications executive, Centenniel, Colo.
FIELD REPORT:Helping out at an orphanage
PROGRAM: Cross-Cultural Solutions (800/380-4777; www.crossculturalsolutions.com) COST: Two weeks, $2,140 per adult, $1,070 per child 12 and under for food, lodging, ground transportation, and medical insurance.
"Our kids, Chelsea, 16, and James, 14, are very fortunate. We live in a nice place and have traveled to all seven continents. But we want them to have balance in their lives. So they do community service, and last July, while my husband visited his mother, the kids and I headed to Lurin, a poor farming community on the outskirts of Lima. We stayed in a convent with 13 other volunteers, and each day the kids and I rode a bus to an orphanage. We worked with 30 boys, ages six to eight—teaching them English, making crafts, and playing soccer (with a rock). After that, we spent two days at Mother Teresa's hospice in Lima, where we fed, massaged, and played games with severely ill kids. James helped a boy, who had not been out of a wheelchair in years, to walk. We ended the trip with a voyage down the Amazon, and in Ica we tried sandboarding." —Cynthia Cherbak Norell, screenwriter, Woodland Hills, Calif.
FIELD REPORT: Building a house for a single mother
DESTINATION: Anchorage, Alaska
PROGRAM: Habitat for Humanity Global Village (800/HABITAT; www.habitat.org)
COST: Two weeks, $1,700 per person for food and lodging.
"Frankly, I'm a little afraid of power tools. But after a friend at work, a CFO with no carpentry skills, told me about the great time he'd had on a Habitat for Humanity Global Village trip, my wife, Karen, our then-14-year-old son, Nick, and I checked out the Web site. We liked the idea of building someone a house and were thrilled to do it in Alaska, which we'd always wanted to see.
We flew in early and visited Denali National Park and Nome. The first day on the Habitat site in Anchorage, I wore a Rocky & Bullwinkle T-shirt, and Lisa, whose house we were building, showed up in a Boris Badenov T-shirt. That's when I knew this experience was going to be very right.
We slept on cots in the classrooms of a church school. Each day began with an optional, devotional meeting that was Christian yet nonsectarian. (The group was a mix: Quaker, Jewish, Catholic, and several with no religious affiliation.) While Karen, a professional organizer, revamped the supply trailer, Nick and I did construction. When we arrived, there was a foundation; when we left there was a house. One night at 11, thanks to the midnight sun, some of us decided to climb Mount Marathon. Another day we went polar-bear swimming in Seward. Our one regret is that we paid for the trip ourselves rather than collect donations, as the Habitat people advise. The goal of mission teams, they say, is to 'raise awareness as well as walls.' It turns out that many of our friends contribute to Habitat, and would have been glad to be part of our trip." —Dave Rossum, scientist, Monterey, Calif.
Five Useful Web Sites
Type volunteer vacation into any search engine and you'll be flooded with results. How to narrow down the options?Here, five matchmaker sites to steer you in the right direction:
www.volunteerinternational.org Opportunities abroad listed by region, country, type of work, and duration. One special section features organizations geared to families.
www.serviceleader.org Comprehensive site offering advice and links to projects all over the world.
www.heartsandminds.com An information clearinghouse of volunteer groups in need of everything from communications specialists to tutors.
www.volunteermatch.org Placement site for volunteers unable to travel beyond their own zip codes.
app.netaid.org/OV For those with a desire to help the developing world—and a keyboard. Assist not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations with on-line research, e-mailing, and Web-site development. Computer nerds apply here.