You name it, volunteers do it

Author of sourcebook talks about range of working getaways

ou wouldn't think a vacation spent looking at the effects of fertilizing fields with sewer sludge would be popular. But that unusual Ohio expedition was a winner with Earthwatch volunteers.

"They filled that project for three years," says author Bill McMillon.

What people are volunteering for and where they are doing it is something Mr. McMillon knows well. He's been tracking working getaways for 12 years and compiling what he finds in "Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others."

No records are kept on how many people take such trips, he says, but one sign of increased interest is that many companies are offering more options. Earthwatch, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., for example, offered four projects when it was established in 1971. Today, volunteers can chose from 137.

"It used to be that nobody had ever done this before, so they didn't dare," says Blue McGruder, Earthwatch's director of public affairs. "Now we've found that people's confidence level is higher." Even so, the group still has more projects to fill than it has volunteers, she adds.

Entries in McMillon's book have also grown: He started with 75 organizations in 1987 and lists 275 today. His guide is not comprehensive, but it does list a wide variety of options.

Opportunities range from working around the corner in a soup kitchen ("a legitimate volunteer vacation," McMillon notes) to staying in a chateau in France while restoring a medieval village.

Archaeological excavations have more volunteer hours given to them than any other type of activity, according to McMillon. Also in the top three are trips that require social service - such as building homes with Habitat for Humanity - and those that have an environmental focus.

New in the last few years are combination projects - going to Mexico to work in a community and to learn Spanish, for example. Or helping in a rain forest and an inner city in South America.

Before volunteering, people should "look for something they always wanted to do," says McMillon. But keep in mind that when you get there, "You don't have any choices. You can't say 'Oh, today I'd rather do something else,' " he says.

In his book, McMillon suggests calling organizations ahead of time and asking questions. He also recommends interviewing previous volunteers - a good way to find out what a program will be like.

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