Getaways for Good

VolunteerVacation285Spend a few hours volunteering for meaningful vacation memories.

By Maryann Hammers

A few years ago, Judy Crockett and her husband took a memorable road trip, with musical stopovers in Nashville and Memphis. On the drive home to Michigan, they stopped to savor the culture and cuisine of New Orleans and also visited the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.

But the week they spent on the Mississippi Coast was the most memorable, Judy says. There, they volunteered with Mission on the Bay, a program created to help Hurricane Katrina recovery efforts.  The experience “was life-altering,” Judy says. “We got back much more than we gave. I will never forget the faces nor the stories of the people we served.”

As Judy discovered, vacations and volunteering are a perfect fit. Wherever you go, whatever your pet cause — kids, animals, the environment — organizations like Create The Good (createthegood.org), Volunteer Match (volunteermatch.org), and Sierra Club’s Volunteer Vacations (sierraclub.org) can help pinpoint opportunities to give back.

When Dave Parfitt of Rochester, New York, takes his two daughters to Disney World and Universal Orlando, they also spend a day volunteering at Give Kids The World (gktw.org), a resort for children with life-threatening illnesses. “Our family scoops ice cream, serves meals, or helps with evening entertainment,” Dave says. “We used to think Disney was the most ‘magical place on earth,’ but Give Kids The World is where the magic really lives.”

Now Dave is planning a trip to visit family on Sanibel Island, Florida, and he’s already looking into ways the family can volunteer while there. “This would be a great place to help out with outdoor or ecological programs,” he says.  (Some ideas for Dave: He might start with the local Sierra Club chapter to join a beach or trail clean-up crew, or contact Nature Corps [thenaturecorps.org], which organizes all-inclusive volunteer vacations at national and state parks.)

Is a wagging tail or soft-throated purr your kind of satisfaction? Follow the lead of Amy Burkert, who writes the travel-with-pets blog GoPetFriedly.com. Whenever she finds herself in a new city, she stops at a local animal shelter and spends the day walking dogs or helping out however she can.

Other animal organizations include See Turtles (seeturtles.org), which arranges wildlife conservation trips, and Vida Volunteers (vidas.org) seeks volunteers to staff spay-and-neuter clinics to reduce pet overpopulation in Central America and Mexico.

Alexandra Kenin has twice stopped at Best Friends Animal Society (bestfriends.org) as part of a longer vacation. “I walked dogs, fed them, and refilled water bowls. I even brought a dog home to my hotel at night — the sanctuary and most local hotels allow sleepovers,” says the San Francisco animal lover.

“The Best Friends’ location in Kanab, Utah, means I could visit the Grand Canyon, Zion, or Antelope Canyon while also giving a day or two of service to dogs, cats, horses, rabbits, pigs, and other animals in need,” Alexandra adds.

Blending vacations and volunteering is a win-win, says Diane Strachan, who created a Stewardship Travel program for California’s Central Coast (Highway1DiscoveryRoute.com). The eco-tourism program suggests more than 70 conservation, restoration, and preservation activities, from planting trees to ocean cleanups.

“It’s a way to dive deeper, learn more, and make a difference, while you also play and relax,” says Strachan. “It’s a way to connect in a more intimate and meaningful way to places and the people who live there.