In a service exchange, so much gained

Email|Print| Text size + By Robert Preer
Globe Correspondenet / January 16, 2005

Caring for injured seals on islands off the coast of Scotland. Helping on an archeological dig in France. Maintaining bridges in the Amazon rain forest of Peru. For people who have the time, energy, and money, a world of opportunity in service travel awaits.

Scores of nonprofit organizations in the United States and abroad now welcome individuals willing to donate their time, be it a week, a year, or anything in between. They include environmental groups, scientific and research institutions, government agencies, community development organizations, and educational institutions. Also, the last decade has seen the rise of clearinghouse agencies, some for profit, which function as matchmakers, pairing volunteers with charitable organizations around the globe.

Volunteer vacations can be thought of as short-term versions of the Peace Corps, which was the model for the first service-oriented travel programs. Although there are no precise data on volunteer travel, people in the industry and those who study it say the sector grew slowly but steadily in the 1970s and 1980s, then took off in the 1990s.

''It is definitely a growing part of the travel industry, and it has grown relatively quickly," said Doug Cutchins, director of social commitment at Grinnell College in Iowa and coauthor of ''Volunteer Vacations: Short-term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others" (Chicago Review Press).

Service-oriented travel was one of the first segments of the travel industry to bounce back after Sept. 11, according to Cutchins. He said it got a boost from President Bush's call for Americans to dedicate two years of their lives to public service.

The rise of service-oriented tourism parallels that of eco-tourism, and both are, in part, responses to concerns that conventional tourism sometimes harms the cultures, economies, and environments of developing countries. Travelers who choose volunteer tourism have a variety of motives. Some have a sense of moral duty; others see it as part of a religious commitment. Many programs are affiliated with religious groups.

''Some people say, 'This is how I show my love for the Lord,' " said researcher Michael Ray Smith, who conducted extensive interviews with the service-oriented group Baptist Men of North Carolina. The organization's volunteers respond to disasters around the world and help with rebuilding.

''Then you have the people who say they do it to see the looks on people's faces," said Smith, who teaches mass communications at Campbell University near Raleigh. ''And you have other people who say, 'I do it because I think I'm supposed to do it. It's something I can do.' "

Cutchins believes volunteer vacations satisfy the zest Americans have for multitasking. ''We hear it all the time. People say, 'I want to volunteer, and I want to go on vacation.' This is a way to do both," he said.

Others do it to learn languages or other skills or to understand another culture. ''People are interested in getting a deeper sense of the places they visit and not just the sightseeing routine," said Nina Jacobi, a former editor of the ''Let's Go" travel guides.

LeeAnn Johnson, managing director of i-to-i Volunteer Travel, in Denver, said some people go to figure out things about their own lives.

''We are seeing an increasing number of career breakers, people in transition," Johnson said. ''They use it as a time for soul-searching."

All ages can participate in volunteer travel, although young adults and the newly retired are most numerous. Some programs accept families. The cost of such trips varies widely, from $20 for a weekend project in the United States to $3,000 and up for longer foreign travel.

Similarly, the range of accommodations is huge, from a city hotel to a mud hut in a village or a tent in a forest.

Travelers interested in service vacations should do some research first to be sure they will be comfortable with accommodations, the tasks they will perform, and the preparation they will receive. It also helps if you share the goals and values of the organization.

Camaraderie among volunteers can be a big part of the experience, and specialists say it is also a good idea to find out in advance whether there is a profile of likely participants, including age range and motivations.

Robert Preer can be reached at

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