- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 2, 2008


The first bucket shower is the hardest. The water, extracted from a well deep in the ground, is cold and smelly. When filled, the bucket is heavy and difficult to lift.

After 1 1/2 weeks, however, Sarah Scheuch has adjusted to the lack of running water - and the bland maize meal, the nagging sand in her shoes, the mosquito nets, the sound of roosters in the morning and the little children who shout “Mzungu! Mzungu!” when she walks by.

The 25-year-old Kansas City elementary-school teacher wanted to celebrate her master’s degree by taking a trip on her own. Initially, she had planned to backpack through Europe, but an article in her local newspaper on volunteer vacations changed her mind. Now she’s spending a good part of her summer in the village of Gongolamboto, teaching English and nursery school classes to enthusiastic, poverty-stricken students.

“I love it,” says Miss Scheuch, on a break in the school courtyard. “Kids are kids no matter where you go. They’re so eager and affectionate.”

One-quarter of Americans are interested in spending their vacation days volunteering, the Travel Industry Association reported in a fall 2006 survey of 1,500 adults. The number of those who actually end up doing it is growing.

Bud Philbrook, president and co-founder of St. Paul-based Global Volunteers, founded the nonprofit group in 1984 and sent nine people abroad that year. This year, Global Volunteers is sending 2,500 people to 21 countries.

Other groups have seen a similar spike in travelers. United Planet, the seven-year-old Boston nonprofit through which Miss Scheuch planned her trip, is sending 450 volunteers this year, compared with 350 in 2007.

Many of those who make the trek are close to college age, but the number of baby-boomer volunteers has been on the rise in recent years as retirees with disposable income look for a way to give back.

“Our youngest volunteer to date was 5 - the oldest was 93,” Mr. Philbrook says.

The lengths of the trips vary - from one week to six months at Global Volunteers and up to a year at United Planet, for example - allowing even those with demanding jobs or other obligations to carve out time to volunteer.

“They might have elderly parents, they might have young kids, they might have student loans, there are all kinds of obligations people have,” Mr. Philbrook says.

Likewise, the volunteer projects vary. For her six-week stay in Tanzania, Miss Scheuch had four areas of focus from which to choose: teaching English or other subjects at a school; working at an orphanage; teaching vocational skills or HIV education; or working at an HIV/AIDS outreach clinic. Other organizations offer similar choices.

One detail many of those mulling a volunteer trip might not realize is that they cost money. Miss Scheuch, in addition to paying for airfare, was responsible for a tax-deductible program fee totaling well over $2,000. She was able to raise most of the fee by creating a donation Web site and hosting a fundraising dinner.

“A lot of people say, ‘Why do I have to pay to volunteer?’ But to have a community that has very little resources to begin with support someone as in that person not paying at all, they can’t financially do it,” says Theresa Higgs, director of international programs at United Planet. “The bulk of it goes to the country to pay for the housing, for the food, for the transportation.”

The remainder goes toward administrative costs. While travelers could organize a trip on their own, one of the main benefits of going through an organization, she says, is having a local coordinator available around the clock in case something goes wrong.

As far as living conditions go, some organizations, like Global Volunteers, put travelers up at a local guesthouse, while United Planet places them with host families in the community.

If there’s one thing that causes would-be volunteers to hesitate, says author Amber Van Schooneveld, it’s the question: Can someone really make a difference in a couple of weeks?

“We can change their lives just in a hug, in a smile, in a couple of words that we can share with someone or play with someone - we can give someone that respect, that dignity and that hope even when they’re living in a hopeless situation,” says Mrs. Van Schooneveld, author of “Hope Lives,” a book that examines Western impressions of poverty. “Making the smallest gesture to lend respect and dignity to that person that they matter, that they’re a real, worthy person can really make a difference.”

Mr. Philbrook points out that volunteer vacations aren’t all about giving; they’re about receiving, too.

“If you’re so fortunate to be able to have a conversation with a 55-year-old grandmother in Tanzania - she’s probably out hoeing her front lawn because she’s going to grow her maize there, she’s probably got a grandbaby strapped to her back, she probably hasn’t been through the third grade - if you got to speak with her, you’d get a sense of wisdom you’d never get anywhere else,” he says.

In the case of Miss Scheuch, she has decided to sponsor two of her students, 4 1/2-year-old twin girls who are orphans and living with a foster mother who has HIV. She already has bought them new shoes, backpacks and school uniforms so they can fit in with the rest of the children.

— Reporter Kara Rowland volunteered in Tanzania for two weeks on her own time through United Planet.

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