You don’t have to go far to do good

Image: Kerry Salter, left, and Annie Ledbury volunteer their time with Habitat for Humanity
Kerry Salter, left, and Annie Ledbury volunteer their time to help with construction at a 41-unit condominium project managed by Habitat for Humanity in the Ocean Hill neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York.Mark Lennihan / AP

Karinda Washington, managing partner of BOTS Entertainment in Detroit, caught the voluntourism bug just over a year ago. She was working as a chaperone on a bus tour put together by Students Today Leaders Forever, a Minneapolis-based non-profit group that encourages students to “pay it forward” by combining travel, volunteer work and education.

The trip, a four-day journey from Chicago to Nashville, had the students cleaning several community-service facilities, including a Salvation Army mission near Indianapolis, a homeless shelter in Louisville and a YMCA in Nashville.

But it was while hauling the abandoned appliances and other debris out of a garbage-filled sinkhole in the small town of Horse Cave, Ky., that the work really hit home. “It was an opportunity to see how other people live, to share stories and to get a different perspective on what their challenges are,” says Washington, now 30. “And to see young people get just as excited was a phenomenal experience.”

A shared language fosters better communication
Such efforts may represent the future of voluntourism, suggests David Clemmons, founder of San Diego-based For one thing, he says, people who engage in service-based tourism at a young age are more likely to make it an ongoing part of their travel plans. And with a weak dollar and skyrocketing airfares, taking an international volunteer vacation these days is an increasingly expensive proposition.

In fact, according to a recent survey sponsored by and Conde Nast Traveler magazine, more respondents (32 percent) said they would prefer to volunteer near home (i.e., in North America) than anywhere else. (South America and Europe were next, with 16 and 15 percent, respectively.)

According to Clemmons, domestic trips also offer a good introduction for travelers who are new to voluntourism. A shared language, he notes, fosters more communication, which, in turn, makes it easier to get the full experience. Sometimes, he adds, people on international trips become “almost like deer in the headlights. It can be too much all at once.”

Domestic volunteer vacations, on the other hand, can offer equally rewarding experiences in more familiar surroundings. You can work with Native Americans in Montana or immigrant families in Minnesota with Global Volunteers or help build homes in a dozen different states with Habitat for Humanity.

There’s also much post-Katrina work to be done throughout the Gulf Coast. Web sites such as Volunteer Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast CVB list hundreds of organization and opportunities.

Furthermore, says Michele Gran, cofounder of Global Volunteers, domestic voluntourism can serve as a powerful reminder that there are developing communities and significant regional differences within the U.S. “It’s the sense of entering someone else’s community and following their lead,” she says. “There’s significant value in doing that.”

Giving back while going green
Environmental projects offer another potential growth area in volunteer vacations, says Clemmons. “Maybe it’s the Earth Day influence, but we’re seeing a lot of green travel and volunteer efforts coming together,” he says — a trend that’s backed up by the Nast Traveler poll. Sixty percent of respondents said they’d be interested in doing scientific or environmental work on a vacation, the second-highest ranking (after teaching English or other academic subjects).

Such projects can be a good choice for first-time volunteers, says Clemmons, because they don’t involve “the great emotional drama” that many human-services projects can. Nor do they require the specific skills that, say, teaching or home construction do.

Both the Sierra Club and American Hiking Society, for example, offer a wide range of service trips designed to build trails, improve campgrounds and eradicate invasive species. Earthwatch Institute invites volunteers to help conduct field research on projects ranging from archeology digs to wildlife conservation.

Meanwhile, if Los Angelenos Kim Rowe and Maria Warman have any say, green voluntourism may soon be ready for its close up. The two recently launched Go Live Give, a Web-based travel show designed to promote eco-friendly vacationing, voluntourism and social responsibility. “There’s more to going on vacation,” says Rowe, the show’s producer, “than just being a consumer.”

The duo’s first episode, for example, focuses on Los Angeles and combines a visit to the Ambrose, an eco-friendly hotel in Santa Monica; a profile of Sworn Virgins, a bamboo-based clothing company; and a beach cleanup with Heal the Bay, a local environmental group. Rowe and Warman are now in post-production on a second episode (on Hawaii) and hope to take their show to cable TV.

Whether such efforts represent a blip on the radar or signs of a boom remains to be seen, but it’s clear that many travelers who give voluntourism a try end up committed to the concept. Karinda Washington, for example, came home from her tour, and within a few months found herself helping put together a similar tour designed to bridge the gap between Detroit’s African-American and Arab-American communities. Says Washington, “I’m totally sold on the concept.”