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Apr. 2, 2008
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IN JANUARY 2006, UW-MILWAUKEE SENIOR EVAN MCDONIELS WAS ITCHING TO EXPLORE the world beyond campus. When he heard that the Venezuelan consulate was offering free trips to Venezuela for nearly 40 U.S. citizens, he jumped at the chance to learn some Spanish, teach a little English and break down stereotypes about developing countries.

He had no idea just how much he’d learn. “I thought I was going to Venezuela to further study what I learned in college. I soon learned that I was re-learning how to form thoughts, let alone language and philosophy. It was like learning to walk,” he says.

Trips that include volunteer work, such as McDoniels’ trip to Venezuela, are growing in popularity— and for good reason. Many travelers say that a search for meaning and real connection with others— something beyond playing Wii or drinking cocktails on the beach—drives them to choose service-work trips. In fact, a 2008 survey sponsored by Cond Nast Traveler and msnbc.com found that 20% of more than 1,600 respondents had taken a volunteer vacation in the past and that almost 60% plan on taking one in the future.

Volunteer vacations—known to the initiated as “VolunTourism”—have been around for a long time, but agencies dedicated to planning and marketing service-oriented experiences have multiplied over the past few years.

David Clemmons spotted this trend more than five years ago while developing service programs for corporations and trade associations. He founded the Web site VolunTourism.org in September 2003 to serve as an information hub for service-work aficionados from all walks of life.

“It was clear that the leisure travel audience was poised to ‘explode’ in terms of interest level,” he said. As a result, Clemmons’ Web site has made a conscious effort “to serve both audiences and the other stakeholders that make VolunTourism possible.

”While many people are familiar with service efforts such as Teach for America and Habitat for Humanity, Clemmons says that VolunTourism evolved from service projects by faith-based communities.

“For centuries, if not millennia, people have traveled the world and rendered service to others as a demonstration of their faith connection,” he says. “In modern times, the faith-based community reinstituted this practice following World War II. Then you had the founding of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in the U.K. and the U.S. Peace Corps.”

Service learning came into its own as an idea in the 1960s. Around this time, volunteer vacations with a service-learning component began cropping up at places such as the Earthwatch Institute, which hosts VolunTourism activities to this day, Clemmons says.

From there, VolunTourism has broken into the travel market. Today, numerous businesses fill the niche of creating VolunTourism experiences for travelers—in exchange for a fee. Do-it-yourself options are still available as well, from joining the ranks of an established volunteer network to contacting individual nonprofit organizations and pitching service-project ideas.

This combination of for-profit and not-for-profit routes to service learning has led to a plethora of options for travelers. From tracking endangered wolf species to working on fair-trade coffee plantations to setting up emergency shelters for flood victims, the possibilities are virtually endless.

Yet some volunteers take matters into their own hands. Milwaukee orthopedic surgeon Sean Keane has been organizing missions to Nicaragua for years, going back to the Sandinista era, long before VolunTourism became fashionable. Keane said that he organizes medical volunteers, as well as experts in other fields, such as engineering, law and education. The Americans help deliver medical supplies, treat Nicaraguans and introduce new techniques such as joint replacements—and even an openheart surgery—but they also engage in a two-way dialogue with their Nicaraguan peers.

“We are not there to be condescending and tell the local people what to do,” Keane said. “We are there to supplement their efforts. The intellectual contact is important, too. It works both ways.”

On the other end of the scale as far as public awareness, Habitat for Humanity, which has been building houses for the poor since 1976, runs some of the best-known service projects in the United States. According to Whitney Raasch, president of UWM's chapter of Habitat, volunteer trips offer "a place for everyone to fit in and share their talents, whether it’s creativity, communication, collaborating or leadership.”

VolunTourism, according to Raasch, also offers a break from one’s everyday surroundings at a fraction of the cost of a more traditional vacation. Short house-building trips organized by the UWM chapter, for example, range from $200 to $250 and include transportation, registration fees, lodging and most meals.

“These trips are a wonderful way to satisfy the desire to leave Wisconsin, have fun at a very affordable price and see how they are making a difference in someone else’s life, even if it’s just for a few days,” she says.

Broadened social and political perspectives, heightened geographical awareness, cultural enrichment and new friends are just a few of the side effects of volunteer vacations. Best of all, these benefits last much longer than a Caribbean sunburn.

McDoniels, for example, learned to trust in the kindness of strangers. In Carora—a small city in northwestern Venezuela known for its universities, cattle ranches and arid climate—he met a professor and poet who became his artistic and linguistic mentor, a hip-hop singer and skateboarder who became his surrogate brother, and world-renowned guitarist Alirio Diaz, with whom he shared a laugh and an empanada.

He also took part in public traditions such as gathering in the plaza, where “talking to every person you meet for at least 15 minutes is the bare minimum of politeness,” and learned about the culture’s tradition of cooperative learning. (In Venezuela, ordinary people start grassroots co-op centers to exchange goods and services, from auto repair to fresh fruits and vegetables.)

Inspired by the co-op model of community participation, McDoniels helped set up a language co-op to teach English to Carora residents. Afterward, he turned to poetry, first becoming a poetry teacher for local schoolchildren and later receiving recognition as a poet in his own right, winning first place in a poetry contest organized by several of Venezuela’s poet laureates.

McDoniels says that letting go of his expectations, lending a helping hand and accepting help from others were keys to his adventure. “By letting go of myself, my comforts, my language, I was allowed to experience something of a magnitude I had never witnessed before,” he says.

This “something,” he says, involves a change in worldview and understanding oneself—and what it means to have a “self”—in a new way. “If we go to another country thinking, ‘I’m going to change the world’ or ‘I’m going to help these poor people,’ this is just another form of colonization,” he says. “But if we go to a new place and allow ourselves to learn from another culture and be humble in our environment, we can learn all levels of balance: social, environmental and spiritual.”

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com.


Volunteering for a nonprofit organization is great for your conscience, but did you know that it can be good for your wallet, too? In general, volunteers are allowed to deduct certain expenses incurred during volunteer work when preparing their federal tax returns.

However, charitable contributions such as donations to nonprofit organizations usually only benefit you if you itemize deductions. This means filing the long Form 1040 and Schedule A, reading the Internal Revenue Service’s Publication 526 and, in most cases, saving a lot of receipts.

Though you should consult your tax adviser for the official details, here are a few rules of thumb for making the most of your volunteer work come tax time: Keep detailed records: Keep credit card receipts, canceled checks or a travel diary to document the money you spent while volunteering for your favorite nonprofit in case the IRS questions your deductions. Also keep any receipts the organization gives you for donated goods.

Don’t go overboard: You can’t write off money given to individuals or wages you sacrificed in order to take a volunteer trip. Bills from five-star restaurants probably won’t qualify either, so choose your deductions wisely.

Material donations: Did you give food, medical supplies or other goods to a nonprofit to give to the needy? You can deduct their market value from your tax return. If you donated used goods such as clothing or household supplies, you can deduct what a buyer at a thrift shop might pay for these items in their current condition. List each item and its value separately when you itemize.

Out-of-pocket costs: Did you buy stamps, books, office supplies or other materials for a nonprofit organization? Did you pay for parking or phone calls while volunteering? If you weren’t reimbursed, you can deduct these items on your tax return.

Driving expenses: If you used your car to perform volunteer activities, you may deduct 14 cents per mile traveled. Gasoline and tolls can be deducted, too: Just be sure to keep a paper trail. Travel incidentals: If you traveled away from home for more than a day on a volunteer trip, you can deduct expenses for food, lodging and transportation, as long as the price tag is considered “reasonable.”

Nonprofit status: Not sure if the organization you volunteer for is tax-exempt? Check its tax status by calling the IRS toll-free at (877) 829-5500. —J.S.



So you’re thinking about taking the plunge and joining the ranks of VolunTourists across the globe? The first leg of your journey involves gathering information and finding the program that best matches your skills and interests. As with any trip, you’ll want to make sure you have a trustworthy host. Daniela Papi, founder of VolunTourism operator Protect the Earth, Protect Yourself (PEPY), suggests obtaining an itinerary for the trips that interest you most, as well as a list of past participants and their contact information.

Here are five suggestions:

Get Moving: Whether it’s by plane, train, bike or donkey, VolunTourists serve as movers of valuable medical and educational supplies, building materials and ideas. Horses—plus a caravan of camels and a herd of goats—are the preferred mode of transport for Relief Riders International (reliefridersinternational.com), which sends VolunTourists to remote villages throughout India to set up medical camps, give goats to needy families and distribute educational materials to schools.

Meanwhile, PEPY (pepyride.org) hosts bicycle trips across Cambodia that focus on learning about the cultures, geography and needs of each region along the route. In addition to transporting supplies, each rider collects donations for his or her trip, which are used to fund activities such as a library-and literacy initiative, a school-building project and a program that provides bicycles to rural schoolchildren.

Help the Big Easy: New Orleans, once one of the most culturally vibrant cities in America, is still a disaster zone due to Hurricane Katrina. But you can make a difference by rebuilding wrecked homes, assisting with a pet-rescue program, tutoring kids or simply picking up debris. Visit Common Ground Relief (commongroundrelief.org), Animal Rescue New Orleans (animalrescueneworleans.org) or the Greater New Orleans chapter of Volunteers of America (voagno.org) to locate some of the projects going on in the area.

Go Green: Adventure Service Tourism (adventureservicetourism.com) coordinates a variety of eco-friendly vacations in South America for VolunTourists. This year’s options include projects to regenerate the yellow spotted sideneck turtle population, conserve three threatened species of palm trees and help women in rainforest communities grow medicinal plants.

On the other side of the globe, Volunteers for Peace (vfp.org) coordinates trips to African countries that last two to three weeks and focus on sustainable agriculture and environmental protection activities. For those interested in a longer trip, Global Vision International (gvi.co.uk) hosts a 10-week program researching marine mammals in Kenya and a 10-week program monitoring coral reefs, migration patterns of whale sharks and other ecological concerns in the Seychelles.

Surf and Turf: Finnish VolunTourism operator Otra Cosa (otracosa.nl) is looking for “enthusiastic people just wanting to help out and see Peruvian life behind the tourist facades.” Local organizations in Huanchaco, Peru, offer volunteers discounts on food, Spanish classes, Shiatsu massage, surfing equipment rental and accommodations. Volunteers can help out at places such as an organic sugar or coffee farm, a vegetarian restaurant or a surf-and-skateboard academy, or aid activities such as a photography project for kids or an English training program for mountain guides.

Om My God: Through Conscious Journeys (consciousjourneys.org), VolunTourists don’t just backpack their way through Tibet’s breathtaking scenery. They explore temples, monasteries, festivals and rituals and interact personally with lamas, yogis, monks and other scholars. In return for the teachings they receive, the volunteers deliver medical supplies to remote areas, help set up clinics and assess health needs in rural communities, where conditions such as malnutrition, rickets, tuberculosis and epilepsy are widespread. Throughout the trip, guides educate volunteers about Eastern and Western approaches to medicine, spirituality and healing. —J.S.



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