Published January 14, 2015
Susan Chamberlain knows how to enjoy a vacation. There's nothing like bunking in a tiny hostel and performing a little manual labor.
Having a massage at a seaside spa or a five-star hotel may be the ideal vacation to some, but a growing number of others are foregoing glamorous trips in favor of "volunteer vacations" in which they travel all over the world doing everything from rebuilding community centers to cleaning up hiking trails.
Instead of sipping margaritas or sailing to exotic ports, travelers are joining organized trips — typically with 10 to 15 other people — to needy parts of Asia, Central America and even to national parks in the U.S.
"A lot of people say, ‘Why would you want to do that?' And you know why: It's because it feels right," said Chamberlain, 40, a meeting planner from Brookline, N.H., who has traveled to Ecuador and Peru on volunteer trips. "I travel a lot in my job. I have the opportunity to stay in nice hotels. I don't have the desire to do that for my vacation."
During Chamberlain's Ecuador trip, she helped local women sew aprons, painted murals inside a town hall and helped chaperon 60 underprivileged kids on their first trip to a zoo.
Although the accommodations were less-than-luxurious, she worked eight-hour days and used up all her vacation time, Chamberlain said she doesn't long to be pampered at Club Med or any other tourist spot.
"You could never imagine that you could get so much out of it until you are crying at the airport saying goodbye," said Chamberlain, who wants to bring her 14-year-old son to India on a volunteer vacation next year. "It's more rewarding than sitting on the beach in Maui."
Not only are many Americans sacrificing precious days off to teach English as a second language and build new housing in poverty-stricken communities, but they are paying for the privilege of getting down and dirty.
Volunteer vacations run anywhere from $600 to $2,500 depending on the destination and length of stay, excluding the cost transportation, but including room and board.
One of the major organizers of these charitable trips is Global Volunteers, a 20-year-old institution that has established bases in 20 countries. Global Volunteers' media relations manager, Barb DeGroot, said she's noticed an upsurge in participants over the last few years.
"This concept of volunteer vacations seems to be catching on lately. I don't think it's mainstream, but it's not as flaky as it used to seem," said DeGroot. "I believe people are taking it personally, as a personal responsibility, and trying to get to know cultures on a different basis than the traditional tourist route."
The idea of exposing her two kids to another culture is what motivated Nancy Jacobs and her husband Mark Sandercott to bring their two kids — Evan, 6 and Layne, 12 — to Ecuador to volunteer at a school for disabled kids.
"It's a mission for me to make sure my children have a global understanding truly within them and not just from studying it," said Jacobs who lives in Minnesota. "I want them to be citizens of the world."
Jacobs said it wasn't exactly a trip to Disneyland for her kids, and recommends that parents carefully consider their children's needs before taking them on a volunteer vacation where there are few of the luxuries most American kids are used to.
"A lot of people just think it's altruistic, it's good for the kids, but to take a pre-adolescent and get her away from her friends — it did become a wonderful thing — but in the beginning it was like pulling teeth to get her to leave town."
Still, Jacobs said her kids got a taste of a more simple life during their two-week trip.
"We shared one room with a little bathroom. We'd go out into the street and play kickball. That's how we'd entertain ourselves," she said.
For outings that are closer to home, the Sierra Club offers about 350 volunteer trips that are less expensive than overseas packages and focus on getting back to nature.
"We work in wilderness areas, national parks, with the Forest Service, with the Nature Conservancy on Martha's Vineyard," said Molly McCahan, a Sierra Club spokeswoman.
Sierra Club volunteers typically spend their time repairing, maintaining and re-routing hiking trails, assisting with archaeology research and a variety of other projects.
"I think it's a sense of community that brings people out to do volunteer vacations," said McCahan. "As the state of the world gets increasingly fragile, people are looking at alternative ways to give back and see something they haven't seen before."
And for travelers like Jane Roach, 73, and her husband Robert, 73, who have visited China, New Zealand and Poland on volunteer vacations, the trips are a better way to get to know foreign places and people.
"We've gone on a lot of tours where someone is holding a flag and they show you building and it's fine, but you don't really know the country," said Jane Roach, of Independence, Ore. "On [volunteer vacations] you really get to know the people and that's great."