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A vacation is usually a much-needed chance to rest and relax. But if you are looking for something extra, and a chance to accomplish some good on your time off, you might want to consider a volunteer vacation. You can even volunteer as a family, and teach your kids about the value of helping others.
A volunteer vacation is just what it sounds like: It lets you volunteer your time and services during your vacation. You can help with scientific research, build houses, teach English, provide social services, or do just about anything else under the sun. For example, you can help restore traditional Mediterranean masonry in Provence.
You can work in the United States or in places all over the globe. You can further your political or social agenda, or you can just do something that makes you feel like you are making a difference.
Make no mistake: These vacations are not a way to get out of paying for your time off. In virtually all cases you have to pay for your own transportation to the site. In addition, you usually have to pay a fee – which can be up to a few thousand dollars or more -- to cover the sponsoring group's costs. However, you may be able to take a tax deduction for all or part of that fee, so check with the sponsoring organization.
You can start your planning by searching the Internet for volunteer vacations. As with any Internet search, make sure you check out the groups and activities you find. But there are lots to choose from.
For example, religious organizations often sponsor service trips. If you follow a faith tradition, check to see what they offer. You may even be able to join a group from your congregation.
Habitat for Humanity has multiple sites for people who want to help build houses for the underprivileged, in the United States or all over the globe. You can go alone or as a family, and all you need is a willingness to help and some basic building skills.
Cross Cultural Solutions also has volunteering opportunities for families. The organization provides humanitarian volunteers to work on service projects all over the world. Most of their volunteers spend from two to 12 weeks on a project, but there are opportunities for stays as short as a week. The cost can be steep, but it may be deductible.
Global Volunteers also works to promote peace and global understanding. It offers many volunteer opportunities in the U.S. or abroad. You can work with the Blackfeet Nation in Montana or teach English in Tanzania, for example. These trips can be on the costly side, but they also may be deductible.
The Sierra Club has a wide range of outdoor-oriented vacations, including many for serious outdoorsmen. But it also has many trips that can be enjoyed even if you aren't in tip-top shape. For example, you can learn about Native American culture and history while working at New Mexico's Chaco Canyon National Historical Park, or work on trail projects in a family-oriented opportunity in Tahoe National Forest in California. For more information, visit the Web site and search for volunteer vacations, including some specifically geared for people 50 and over.
If you are interested in helping with scientific research, the Earthwatch Institute can match you with teams of expert researchers virtually anywhere in the world. Help with studies of the coral reefs of Thailand or diamondback terrapins in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey. Most of these trips require little scientific experience; volunteers do things like record data and take simple measurements. These trips can be pricey, although the cost helps support the research and may be deductible.
These are just a few of the options available to you. If you are interested in a volunteer vacation, there is something that will fit your fancy. Then, when you come home, you will bring more than photographs and souvenirs. You will bring great memories, and the knowledge that you helped make a difference.