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Take a vacation and get to work -- for a cause

Instead of sitting on the beach with the latest bestseller, consider helping someone in need. And it isn't all work and no play.
Hard Rock Cafe employees Omar Nunez, center, and Annie Balliro, right, help with a Habitat for Humanity project at the Musicians Village in New Orleans, May 24, 2006.
Hard Rock Cafe employees Omar Nunez, center, and Annie Balliro, right, help with a Habitat for Humanity project at the Musicians Village in New Orleans, May 24, 2006.Cheryl Gerber / AP

Ray Unger, a 67-year-old retired teacher from Toronto, decided to do something different for vacation this year. Instead of taking a cycling trip, as he has often done in the past, Unger enlisted with a work team through Habitat for Humanity -- an international nonprofit Christian housing organization -- bound for the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast of Louisiana. Unger and his diverse team spent a week hammering shingles and siding for homes for 100 families affected by Hurricane Katrina.

Unger enjoyed his vacation, but it was a far cry from a relaxing biking trip. "It's a full eight-hour work day," says Unger. "But you feel like you're helping people at the same time, which makes it all the more rewarding."

What better way to experience a new locale than to build something that directly affects the local community? "It's the difference between going to Cancun and only interacting with wait staff of hotels and restaurants vs. living side-by-side with poor people and helping them solve their housing problems," says David Minich, the director of the Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program.

Not just houses
Indeed, more and more vacationers are catching the building bug. In 2001, Habitat's Global Village program sent about 250 teams from the U.S. and Canada and another 100 from Europe -- 5,250 volunteers, in all -- to building sites around the world. Minich predicts his program will have sent more than 9,100 volunteers to 450 projects all over the world by the end of this year.

Because of disasters like Katrina and the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia at the end of 2004, there are a large number of rebuilding projects dedicated to housing. But volunteers are starting to tackle more than just houses, with such projects as building adobe stoves in Peru and wheelchairs in Cambodia.

These trips are not for everyone, and there are important factors to consider before signing up for a building vacation, such as what work you'll be doing, where you want to go, what the living conditions are like, and whether you're prepared to rough it for a while. And cost is often an issue. Many organizations offering volunteer vacations maintain nonprofit status, so while the cost of the trip is entirely tax-deductible, it's still borne by the volunteer. For those with more time to spare, some programs allow volunteers to tack on an extra week or two for a nominal fee.

'Infinite need for volunteers'
One thing you don't have to worry about: experience. For many of the trips, you don't need to be handy with a hammer and nails. "I was installing shingles for a while," says Unger. "For a lifelong teacher, that's sort of a new thing to do."

Another thing you don't have to worry about: not being needed. Volunteers for Peace (VFP), a Vermont-based group that places volunteers in projects around the globe, will send two groups to the Gulf Coast this summer. It's hard to miss the point in the letter it sends to volunteers: "Please understand there is an infinite need for volunteers here. YOU ARE NEEDED!!!"

More and more volunteer vacationers are learning how good it feels to be needed.