Voluntourism takes off

Cam Secrist, a retired census bureau specialist, and her husband, Don, a former Boeing engineer, will be off to the South Pacific soon, not to lie on the beach and sip Mai Tais, but to work three 40-hour weeks among indigenous Polynesians in the Cook Islands.

The Seattle couple love to bicycle and hike, both of which they did this year in France and the Grand Canyon. But for the second time in two years, they'll also clear time for a "volunteer vacation'' arranged through Global Volunteers, a Minnesota-based organization that sets up service projects in 30 countries.
Cam Secrist has come to view the trips as a way to combine travel with the type of community outreach she enjoyed in her career.  

"We're retired and we've traveled a lot. People have always been wonderful to us. It's a way to kind of give back to the people we've met in our travels.''

Post 9/11, interest in "Voluntourism,'' the subject of this week's Travel Wise column for The Seattle Times, began to grow, not only among retirees with time and money to spare, but also among younger travelers, says Joyce Major,  author of "Smiling at the World,'' a book documenting her volunteer adventures in 11 countries. 

After a career spent selling real estate, Major, who teaches classes on global volunteering at North and South Seattle Community Colleges, spent a year working in wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa, teaching English in China and working on a restoration project in Italy.

First-timers might want to arrange stints through credible placement organizations that partner with charitable groups.

Costs can average $1,000 per week or more, so check websites to make sure the group qualifies for federal 501C-3 tax-exempt status. Consult Charity Navigator  for breakdowns on what percentage of fees go to program expenses vs. administrative costs. 

The Secrists are each paying $2,700 for three weeks in the Cook Islands. The fee is tax-deductable, includes food, lodging in a modest local motel and evacuation insurance, but not air fare.  

For those looking to spend less and are comfortable handling most logistics on their own, Major recommends "grass roots'' programs that can be arranged directly with charities for as little as $150 per week.

The website, www.languageselnahual.com, for instance, lists a project in Xela, Guatemala, where volunteers teach English, art or vegetable gardening. A homestay is included in the $140 per week price.  

 Major advises consulting websites such as www.volunteersouthamerica.net which provides links to free or low-cost volunteering opportunities.

Several Seattle-area non-profits sponsor international projects. Among them are Crooked Trails, with upcoming projects to help families build smokeless ovens in Peru; Village Volunteers, with agricultural, medical, environmental and women's programs in   Kenya, Ghana, India and Nepal; and Seattle Community Colleges which sends  volunteers on health-related missions to Tanzania, Ghana, Peru, Vietnam and India. 
Closer to home, the WashingtonTrails Association sponsors week-long work parties ($195) combining trail maintenance with cooking and camping. 

Writing for the Seattle Globalist's website, veteran volunteer Anna Goren as this advice:

"The first step to any effective volunteer experience is honestly asking yourself why you want to go. For professional experience in international development? To learn a particular hard skill? To work on a social justice issue close to your heart? For adventure?

"Clearly defining your goals for your time abroad will help strike the balance between meeting your personal needs while remaining accountable to the community you are serving. It will also help you find a program that addresses your goals."

Above all, says Joyce Major, "Keep a sense of humor...You must be able to laugh. Ok, the roof blew off...They'll get to it when they can.''

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