Readers respond on 'volunteer vacations'

About 40,000 college students each year devote some vacation time to lending a hand, by one estimate. But the phenomenon reaches across generations, as you'll see if you go to a special section on our website.

Below are excerpts from some of the e-mails we received after we asked readers to tell us about their experiences as participants in volunteer vacations.

You can read the full accounts at – and add your own comments. You'll see the form for your comments at the site. We also posted resources for those who want some tips about volunteering.

Helping children in Brazil

I participated in a volunteer vacation for eight weeks during June and July 2004. I was a volunteer with Cross Cultural Solutions in Salvador, Brazil.

First, and most important, was the volunteer work I did at CAASAH, a residential clinic for children and adults with HIV and AIDS. Every day, I and the other volunteers would spend three or four hours with the kids, and sometimes the adults. Most of the children, ranging in age from newborns to 13-year-olds, were HIV-positive. They had all been abandoned, orphaned, or removed from their homes by the state government.

Our work was frustrating every day, and often tremendously depressing, but at the same time, was the most fulfilling work I have ever done. We all worked so hard to change things at CAASAH and improve what we could for the children there.

I wondered if the kids would even remember me six months from then and if any of the things we helped accomplish would still be in effect. But one day after a particularly sad day at work, my mom wrote to me, saying, "You are an angel. Of course you are making a difference, because on some level these children will know that someone loved them once." And she is right.

For anyone considering a volunteer vacation, I would make a couple of recommendations. First, do your research. Make sure you understand what will be expected of you and that your placement will meet your expectations. Second, know what your expectations are. If you just want a vacation, this isn't the right thing for you.

– Sara Schmidt, Ann Arbor, Mich., USA

The cleanup effort after Hurricane Katrina

Habitat for Humanity was offering some programs where people could come and help with the cleanup.

We arrived very early in the morning and were assigned to a team with a leader and a person in charge of tools. We were put onto a bus and driven a couple of miles to the house we were going to work on. Our job was to rip the entire house apart and leave only the bare structure standing.

Our leader was not more than 20 years old, and the entire team, except for me and my co-workers, comprised a group of students from the University of Pennsylvania. It was a mix of young men and women. I was stunned to see how dedicated they were to helping. These young folks were hard at work and not complaining one bit. And believe me, there was much to complain about. It was hot, humid, and the smell was unbelievable.

My co-workers and I were the old guys on the job (see large photo), but the group accepted us right off the bat – we were big and strong, and there were some heavy things to move.

It was the hardest work I had done in years, and without question it was the dirtiest, but it was so insufficient. These people needed help and the best we could do was a little cleaning.

The students from Penn were unbelievable – in fact, their efforts have changed my view of that generation. They are hard-working, caring people who will do whatever they can to help others.

– Curt Edge [Chief Information Officer, First Church of Christ, Scientist], Boston, Mass., USA

(Note: The Monitor asked the following reader to elaborate on her experience.)

El Salvador volunteer

I went [to El Salvador] with a friend whose church had organized a trip to help. We joined Central American Mission. We were actually the 19th team that had come down to help with rebuilding. We stayed in a mission complex that had bedrooms and a kitchen for us. It was well organized, and we were kept busy with traveling and building. Sometimes we didn't have hot water for showers or we had to wait for food or e-mail. It was not always comfortable, but the 29 people from the US learned to get along, to be patient, and to do without.

When I came back to the US, not only was I more appreciative of all that I had, it changed my life forever because my family and I now live in Croatia working for an NGO and helping people who have had fewer opportunities.

– Rebecca Javorksy, Osijek, Croatia

A good fit in Costa Rica

In the fall of 2005, after leaving my job (and at the age of 45), I went abroad for three months to volunteer. Assigned to work in an orphanage, the first days were chaotic. The children had enough energy to dribble a thousand soccer balls.

Before arriving in Costa Rica, I had worried about fitting in, assuming that other volunteers would be recent high school and college graduates.

Sharing bunk beds, bathrooms, and showers with a battalion of young females seemed formidable. However, within the first week, I fell into a rhythm, enjoying the budding companionship of my younger colleagues.

I miss the children at the orphanage and think about them often. If you have ever considered a volunteer-travel experience, go; you'll come back changed!

– Julie Germano, Cleveland, Ohio, USA

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