Steve Meadows' success as an inventor and real estate developer made him a favorite of Los Angeles charities. He'd have a drink with their execs, make a donation, "and go home feeling good." Eventually, though, writing a check wasn't enough. He wanted to make "a direct difference."
After some online research, Meadows wound up at Mother Theresa's Institute for the Dying & Destitute outside Lima, Peru. For three weeks last year, the 53-year-old entrepreneur worked with children on arts-and-crafts and sports programs and chaperoned seniors on a trip to the ocean. "We as Americans are so focused on the big picture that we forget to look at what's going on right at that moment," he says. The people he met "knew how to experience joy."
A growing number of people are forsaking lavish vacations to work, on their own dime, in struggling communities worldwide. In the first five months of 2004, Cross-Cultural Solutions -- a New Rochelle (N.Y.) organization that runs volunteer-vacation programs in 11 countries -- booked 2,500 trips, compared with 1,534 in 2003. Globe Aware in Dallas has grown from 400 vacations last year to 1,200 booked so far in 2004.
The increasing popularity of these trips, say the companies, in part reflects a shift in the type of help needed. Gone are the days of ladling soup. Instead, volunteers work for aid agencies that run schools for the poor, tag endangered wildlife, or set up public-health programs. No special training is required. In San Pedro de Casta, Peru, for instance, where infant mortality attributed to respiratory disease is high, volunteers convert the soot-laden indoor pit stoves in villagers' homes into stoves that vent fumes outside. In Thailand, volunteers work alongside Buddhist monks to teach computer skills to the disabled.
To find a trip, check out Web sites such as www.responsibletravel.com and books like Alternatives to the Peace Corps (Food First Books, 2003). Travel guides such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide include sections on alternative vacations. Most volunteer-travel companies have 501(c)3 certification, so money spent on the trips is 100% tax deductible for U.S. citizens.
Generally, 12 to 20 volunteers stay with local families or in group houses, dorms, or tents. Volunteers work from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m., break for lunch, and then enjoy cultural activities and tours -- most sites are near at least one tourist destination. After-dinner hours and weekends are unscheduled. Programs cost $1,000 to $1,500 a week, plus airfare. The trips aren't for everyone. "In one Thailand program, we have no running water or toilets," says Globe Aware founder Kimberly Haley-Coleman.
But volunteers say the hardest part isn't physical. It's emotional. Anne Murphy, a Hamburg (N.J.) caterer heading to Ghana in 2005 for her second volunteer vacation, says it's difficult to watch hungry children sacrifice lunches so they can take food home to their families. "It puts things in perspective," she says. Which is why many go on vacation in the first place.
By Kate Hazelwood