Volunteer Vacations: Travel Trends that Feed the Soul

By Ilona Kauremszky
Special to Wish Magazine - March 2008

Let’s face it. Relaxing vacations where we veg by the poolside with a Danielle Steele novel are so yesterday. These days it’s all about personal involvement toward global causes. Perhaps it’s Bono, Brangelina, and Oprah whose star power on world issues have contributed to the appeal.

You know it’s more than a trend when online travel companies like Cheaptickets.com partnered with United Way of America to launch volunteer vacation packages. Industry types are calling it voluntourism. Mind you, voluntourism does come with some caveats. Depending on the project, expenses like transportation and living are extras and the time frame could start from five days up to several months.

Insiders say the high standard of living and material satisfaction have actually made us feel a void in our lives. With tsunami-victims and Hurricane Katrina-survivors filling our TVs and PDAs many feel compelled to pitch in for a good cause.

Voluntourism allows travellers to give back. Whether it’s protecting sea turtles or teaching English in Peru, volunteer vacations give travellers a chance to learn, grow and connect with other like-minded people.

The benefits of volunteer vacations include:

- making a positive contribution to the region
- creating friendships
- learning a new language
- experiencing a true cultural immersion

For Sandra Cuff, a human resources consultant at Toronto City Hall, the idea was second nature. Last fall when a friend and retired ABC news producer living in New Orleans invited her for a visit, she decided to join his favourite cause: Habitat for Humanities. “I visited New Orleans before, love it and felt I wanted to give back,” she recalls of her decision.

During the five-day program, Sandra alongside five other women put up siding at the Musicians’ Village Project. “We call it ‘The House That Women Built.’ But really the group of women was just a coincidence.” Would she do it again? “Absolutely, it makes you feel good. When I left I was walking on a cloud.”

Douglas Thomson, editor of Canadian Home Workshop magazine, is a home workshop specialist. When the then 41-year-old read a letter from his sister-in-law living in New Orleans, the spark was lit. No longer was the Hurricane-ravaged Louisiana a news story. It became personal. Douglas decided he had to give back and also write about it. His company paid for his transportation while Douglas says the one-week trip’s expenses were $900 with Habitat for Humanities providing volunteers with equipment such as a respirator, steel-toe boots and gloves. “I took my own.”

In November 2006, he went to the worst hit area, St. Bernard’s Parish. It was a disaster-zone. His 10-person crew of singles quickly bonded due to a shared common interest. Their task was to gut homes and haul out rotting 14-month old debris.

He says the biggest highlight was the camaraderie. “There was something encouraging and redeeming about humanity and how fast people can come together. It’s very positive.”

Yetti Williams, a communications executive for a global company, invited a guest speaker to discuss volunteering at a course she ran called, “Spirituality on Tap” at the Madison Avenue Pub. The speaker described an orphanage in Africa called the Mully Children’s Family (MCF) Home. “After meeting with this woman I couldn’t wait to go and was very excited,” she says.

Yetti and her husband formed a connection with MCF and created a 27-person group “Caring for Kenya” in 2004 which resulted in her transformational experience. “The MCF home was amazing. The people I met during my stay were incredible. The experience totally changed my perspective and outlook on life. The children had such hope and a positive outlook even though they had nothing by our standards,” she noted.

Since then, Yetti made a return visit in 2007 where she was part of a team that ran a medical clinic. “During the clinic we treated over 1,400 people from the MCF home and the outlying village.”

How does this experience compare with her first trip? “The second trip was more productive. I enjoyed it more because I knew what I was in for so I was better prepared. MCF is now a part of my life and I hope to make numerous trips there and to other orphanages in Africa.”


Lonely Planet’s Volunteer: A Traveler's Guide to Making a Difference Around the World by Charlotte Hindle, Nate Cavalieri, Rachel Collinson, and Korina Miller



Habitat for Humanities

Barbados Sea Turtle Project




dispatches | q&a | photos | film | fork | news | archives | links | search | store | stream | submit | about | contact | home

All text & photos © mycompass.ca 2002-09.