Volunteer Vacations: Making Connections

Rather than dozing on the beach, this father and daughter took a trip to the Caribbean to assist impoverished villagers

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When Rich Warwick, a graphic designer from Kansas City (Kan.) was planning to take his 16-year-old daughter on a vacation to the Dominican Republic, he steered clear of the world-class resorts and beaches. Instead, he opted for painting houses in the 90-plus-degree heat in a small, poverty-stricken village about 60 miles from the Haitian border where the villagers spoke no English.

According to Warwick, the eight-day journey through some of the poorest regions of the Dominican Republic, arranged through a group called Transformational Journeys, was indeed transformational for him and his daughter. "It's a big deal for me to try to instill some empathy in my children," says Warwick, who admits that the poverty he saw on the trip was an eye-opening experience for him as well.


  However, they didn't just see it through the bus windows. By working among and getting to know the locals, the Warwicks had a chance to see how the poverty affects them—and help make a difference. "She had formed such deep connections with the young children there, who seemed to look at her as an adoptive sister or mother figure," recalls Warwick. In fact, he says his daughter has been saving her baby-sitting money all year so she can go back and spend more time with the people she met on her trip.

Volunteer vacations like those organized by Transformational Journeys to the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Guatemala, and other places offer intimacy with local people that's hard to find when staying at resorts. Volunteer vacations often include a home stay with a local family, giving travelers the chance to see how a family lives on a day-to-day basis. Many volunteers say it's that in-depth cultural exposure that defines such trips.

The types of volunteer work vary as widely as the types of people you're interacting with. If you're interested in agriculture, you can teach farming techniques to the locals of Tanzania. Or maybe you love children. If so, you might want to teach English to schoolchildren in Nepal or Thailand, or orphans in Romania.


  Though the volunteers on these vacations work hard in sometimes challenging conditions, there is a definite vacation element to these trips. Volunteers who travel to Peru with United Planet tour the ancient ruins of Machu Picchu. And those who visit the Brazilian city of Recife often extend their trip for a visit to Rio de Janeiro to sample some of the city's renowned nightlife.

But in the end, it's the connections with the locals that make these trips special for most people. "I may never know what my impact has been, except to put a human face on what an American is," says Deb Cutler, a 54-year-old teacher from Spokane (Wash.), who spent two months in Nepal with a group called Cultural Destination Nepal.

"The program allows us to participate and offer whatever we have wherever we're needed," says Cutler. "It was a simple human-to-human connection." she says. Simple, perhaps, but full of meaning.

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