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Volunteer Vacations - When You Want to Do More Than Write a Check

Use a vacation for short-term volunteer projects.

The March that an earthquake struck an Indonesia already devastated by the previous December's tsunami, Lucille Sewell, a retired nurse in Mustang, OK, recalls wondering out loud, "Isn't there something I can do to help?"

Tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes, disease outbreaks—as we witness these unfolding calamities on television many of us yearn to reach out and actually do something. Indeed, a growing "voluntourism" industry, which sends tourists on volunteer vacations, has found itself inundated with inquiries from people from all walks of life. Although the first waves of disaster relief volunteers are doctors and nurses who can deal with medical emergencies, and then people willing to shovel debris, rebuild houses, or cook at a soup kitchen, others—including many teachers—soon follow.

The day after the March earthquake, Sewell, 68, got a call from the director of the Baptist Medical Disaster Relief Team. "He asked if I would be willing to go to Indonesia," Sewell says. "I just said yes." Ten days later she was bound for Simeulue Island.

"The people of Simeulue had survived the tsunami because they moved inland when they saw the animals heading for the hills," she says. "About 90 percent lost their homes in the earthquake, so they were living in tents." Sewell's medical team spent a week treating the injured. "When we arrived at a village," she says, "people would flock to our van." On the last day a woman brought her daughter, who was about four, to the clinic. "The mother held out her arms and asked me to take her daughter to America," Sewell says. "It broke my heart."

Volunteers quickly learn that they can't save the world, but they can make a difference. "If you can be flexible and adaptable," says Dave Moormann, program manager for Global Crossroad, "you'll learn from the people you are trying to help."

Sewell gained a new perspective on life once she was back home. "Before, I'd been mourning the loss of Leon, my husband." (He died in 2002.) "Now I felt grateful for my family and friends. I felt ashamed of the little things I'd complained about. I was happy to have a house and a lawn to mow."

It's Life-Changing. When Carleen Kunkel’s last child left home, she saw a picture of a woman working in Mother Theresa’s orphanage in India. “I thought, I should do something like that.” She called Cross-Cultural Solutions about its India program, which was not available. “They asked me if I would consider going to Ghana.” In November 1996 she went to Africa where she taught at a high school boarding school in Ho, Ghana. She liked it so much, she went back the following February and has gone abroad for 3 or 4 weeks every year. She’s been to China, India, Thailand, Tanzania, Ethiopia. Doing volunteer work in third world countries has changed her life—and her family’s life. Both of her daughters have spent time abroad and she’s hosted several African students in her home in Connecticut. “CCS has been the most wonderful thing in my life besides my husband and giving up smoking.”

A Family Affair. Teachers who contact volunteer organizations are met with open arms and are usually sent to do what they do best—teach. Often that means teaching English but it may require teaching hygiene or conservation or computers. Whether the students are AIDS orphans, Buddhist monks, or Indian homemakers, teachers report that the experience changes them. Volunteers leave home thinking they are going to help others and return with the firm belief that they have been given more than they gave.

Deb Zimmerman's teenage daughter Maggie was the person who got her interested in volunteering. "Maggie went to a youth conference where she became concerned about the AIDS epidemic in Africa," she says. "She was determined to find a way to go to Africa and help the children," says Zimmerman, 53, a first grade teacher in St. Charles, IL. As Maggie researched ways she could volunteer, her mother became involved in her quest. By the time Maggie signed on with Cross-Cultural Solutions, her mother, father, and older brother were on board, too. In summer 2004, the Zimmerman family headed to Moshi, Tanzania, a small village at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro.

Maggie worked in an orphanage with tiny babies who had AIDS while Deb taught at a primary school within walking distance of the volunteer compound. "Lots of the mothers of my students had AIDS," Zimmerman says. Zimmerman's husband, Doug, a business owner, worked with a women's co-op to develop a business plan, and her son Matt helped with computers at a high school. "My school had no electricity," Zimmerman says. "The kids didn't have supplies, and neither did the teachers. I brought 50 boxes of crayons."

Back in a Blink. Many volunteers report that once you've acted on your instinct to help others, it gets into your blood. Zimmerman's daughter Maggie wants to start an organization that would raise money to send teenage volunteers. Her son Matt called her recently to propose that the whole family volunteer in Latin America. "I was thrilled," Zimmerman says.

Molly Last, an English language development teacher in San Francisco and former Peace Corps member, has volunteered in many countries during her vacations. In 2004, Last, 47, decided she wanted to work with Buddhist monks. "It was a step out of my comfort zone," she says.

Global Service Corps placed Last that summer with a family in Thailand. Three days a week she taught English in a large high school in Kanchanaburi, and two days a week she went to the wat, a Buddhist temple. "I taught novice monks, aged 12 to 19, who were making a life commitment," she says. Materials were scarce and not all her students had notebooks. "There are taboos—women mustn't touch the monks, for instance. To give a monk a book, I had to lay it on the table, and then he'd pick it up." Last was planning a trip to Poland in summer 2005, but after the tsunami hit, she decided to return to Thailand instead. "I didn't feel right not going back."

Sewell was just settling down from her trip to Indonesia when the relief agency called again. "They needed an RN." So Sewell flew back to Indonesia, this time to Banda Aceh, one of the places hardest hit by the tsunami.

By the time Hurricane Katrina picked up speed, Sewell was a seasoned volunteer. This time when she got the call to help, she didn't even blink. Two days later she was on a Greyhound bus bound for Louisiana.

Michele Morris is a writer based in Park City, Utah. She is the author of The Cowboy Life. This article appeared originally in NRTA Live & Learn, Fall 2005.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.

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