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Volunteer Vacations

On your next trip, give of yourself...


volunteer hands construction wood beamMany of us spend our time counting the minutes to our next vacation when we can leave our work behind. But for some, working on vacation is far more rewarding than sitting on a beach sipping daiquiris. Not the kind of work that comes from your laptop, but the kind that comes from your heart -- a volunteer vacation.

Imagine taking care of babies in one of Mother Teresa's clinics in India. On another continent, you could teach English to children in Costa Rica, where there is little or no access to schools. Some volunteers may choose to work on sea turtle conservation in Ecuador or be interested in learning the basics of dolphin society in New Zealand. A volunteer vacation is not just a trip; it is quite literally an odyssey comprised of three parts: service, learning and subsequently getting involved back home. Think of it as a trip that keeps on giving to you and everyone around you. It's not necessarily for everyone, but if you are intrigued, read on.

Learn More About Green Travel

Getting Started
You should begin researching and planning your trip no less than three months prior to the planned start of your volunteer experience. The first step is to find an organization that promotes programs that match your interests. There are many organizations that will help you through every step of planning your volunteer vacation. Not sure where to start? The resourceful Web site TransitionsAbroad.com has links to some of the best organizations to consider for your volunteer vacation. Idealist.org also lists volunteer organizations around the world.

Once you have found a company with a project that interests you, consider the caveats and other pertinent considerations. You should have access to program alumni, and you should not have to pay for program information. Do not send money until you have chosen a project and are securing your reservation. If you are browsing an organization's Web site or program guide, you should see a detailed breakdown of how program fees are used; a reputable organization will use 90 to 100 percent of funds received towards the various costs of the program.

Finally, you might see these letters and numbers: 501(c)(3). These numbers refer to a section of the U.S. Internal Revenue code that governs non-profit organizations. All companies must adhere to strict regulations to maintain their status as not-for-profit companies by filing an annual report. As an individual, you have a right to review the report. There should be clear instructions on the Web site on how to obtain this information. Doing your pre-trip "homework" is easy.

hawksbill turtle snorkel snorkeler diver underwaterThe real challenge will be trying to decide where in the world you would like to go and what type of project you would like to participate in. You might soon be on your way to monitoring nesting success and ecology of endangered hawksbill turtles in Barbados or assessing the nutritional aspects of rare Namibian rhinos to help improve their reproductive potential and stave off extinction.

Poll: Would You Take a Volunteer Vacation?

What Can You Expect
In short, you can enact change somewhere in the world and simultaneously change yourself. As you are working, you will experience an immersion into the local culture that you would never receive on a typical vacation. At the same time those around you will get a taste of your own culture. You will meet new people and develop friendships that may last a lifetime. You will see and do something new, different and worthwhile every day.

Green Travel Tips

Work and Play
You can expect to spend a lot of time working, but it will probably not feel like "work." You will often have some of your afternoons free, as well as evenings and weekends. Local guides and program coordinators will assist you in choosing interesting activities for your free time. Since you are participating in what for some travelers is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (though many volunteers choose to repeat the experience), you should try and make the most of every vacation minute.

Note: Naturally, you'll want to take photographs, but if you wish to photograph the local people, please ask for permission before snapping a photo. Some cultures believe that picture taking is intrusive and might violate their cultural beliefs. The organization with which you plan your trip will inform you of this and other local traditions, beliefs and customs.

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