'Voluntour' trips offer opportunities to give back when you get away

If you want the satisfying feeling of doing good while getting out of your daily routine, consider a volunteer vacation. Instead of being a passive world traveler, you can participate in helping to promote world peace and racial reconciliation at home and abroad.

Dubbed "voluntours," hundreds of these trips exist all over the world. As short-term volunteers, people from all walks of life are exposed to different cultures in places such as the Cook Islands, Jamaica and Costa Rica.

Depending on your interests and skills, these programs usually incorporate traditional travel activities alongside volunteer work -- which means you won't be cleaning swamps for 10 consecutive days -- and can vary in length from one to three weeks or longer. You can choose activities like collecting data in an Ecuadorian rain forest, teaching English to college-level students in Mexico or providing much-needed healthcare services in Africa.

The granddaddy of the volunteer-vacation movement, Global Volunteers, a regional-development organization based in St. Paul, Minn., has what are regarded as the best programs in the field. Since 1984, it has mobilized American volunteers to serve in community-initiated and -managed programs on six continents.

At home and abroad

The trips are growing in popularity, especially among retirees, and more travelers are taking their children and grandchildren with them.

Don and Cathy Weber took their two teenage granddaughters (who were 14 at the time) to Quito, Ecuador, in 2006.

"It's a nice time to take young people out of the country while they're still in their teens," Cathy Weber said. A retired physical therapist, she treated disabled students at a special school, while her husband taught English. One granddaughter worked with the underprivileged and disabled younger children; the other taught piano to some of the students. Both granddaughters loved the work and the experience, she said, and are interested in eventually doing foreign work and travel in the same context.

If you want to stay closer to home, there are many volunteer projects at national parks and Indian reservations throughout the U.S., where you'll enjoy spectacular scenery with recreational opportunities. In the heart of Southwest Indian country, the Grand Canyon Trust Volunteer Program offers a variety of work opportunities on the Navajo and Hopi Indian reservations.

The 1.5 million-acre Blackfeet Indian Reservation, just outside Glacier National Park in Montana, has many work projects and family-friendly recreation opportunities. No experience is necessary; the only requirements are that you be interested in American Indian history.

Most volunteers, such as Forrest Maltzman, a political science professor at George Washington University, have never been on an Indian reservation. Last summer, he and his 12-year-old daughter, Noa, spent a week on the Blackfeet reservation.

"On our first day there, we worked together serving meals to hundreds of people at a tribal feed," Maltzman said. His daughter then spent three days on her own doing Meals on Wheels across the reservation while he worked with other volunteers and employees on a landscaping project for the Blackfeet Community College.

"Toward the end, we spent a day working at an elderly woman's house cleaning up her yard," he said. "For seven nights, we slept in a classroom at the Head Start Center in our sleeping bags."

"When we asked the Blackfeet if they wanted to have our lifestyle," Noa says, "they said 'No, why would we want to?'"

Reservation residents said that in addition to living in a scenic area, it was important for them to be near family; most had anywhere from 40 to 60 relatives nearby. "I felt fortunate for what I have," Noa said. "But I came away with the realization that we probably don't value natural beauty and family as much as they do. It was a neat experience."

Golden opportunity

Are you physically fit and into hiking? If so, the American Hiking Society is sponsoring a volunteer trip to Alaska, June 10-19, in Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Volunteers will work in the shadows of the 1898 Alaskan Gold Rush on the historic Chilkoot Trail. Surrounded by glaciers and wildlife, you'll be tearing down and building new structures, then working on trail layout and design.

The trip is rated moderate to difficult. You'll camp in improved tent sites and day-pack a half mile to the work site. Pickup is at the Skagway Airport or Ferry Terminal. Many locals fly into Juneau, then take the Alaska Marine Highway Ferry along the Inside Passage to Skagway.

"When we came home from these trips, we still felt the need to go places," said the Webers, who also worked in China and Peru with Global Volunteers. "Not just as tourists, but doing something where we could connect with people."