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Volunteer vacations: Contributing while on holiday
21 November 2005
by Jane Levere

New York, USA: Albert Huang, a construction manager from San Francisco, had a memorable vacation last summer, though not for the usual reasons.
 
Instead of heading for a beach in Hawaii, as many Californians do, Mr. Huang, 32, spent the last two weeks of July building homes in Galle, Sri Lanka, for victims of the December 2004 tsunami, through a program sponsored by Global Crossroad.
 
"I didn't want to just donate money; anybody can donate money," he said, adding that building the homes made him feel "like I actually contributed."
 
"I wanted to see the results," he said. "It's not about being rewarded; it's about helping people who are dirt-poor."
 
Mr. Huang is among many people who are choosing "volunteer vacations" in the United States or overseas. During these trips, they may work on many kinds of projects - from clearing trails in the Sierra National Forest in California, for instance, to teaching English to a hospital staff in Xian, China.
 
In most cases, the volunteers must pay their own expenses, and sometimes even make a donation to the organization, but these trips are often tax-deductible, lowering the true cost.
 
Although there is no hard data about the number of volunteer vacations, many specialists say the trips have become more popular in recent years, particularly since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and the tsunami. Sherry Schwarz, editor and publisher of Transitions Abroad, a magazine that helps readers study, work and live overseas, found after the tsunami that "there was a large outpouring of people interested in going to Southeast Asia to help, to do more than just give money."
 
Both the tsunami and 9/11, she said, made people "realize there was a real need to help one another, rebuild, reach out."
 
The choice of programmes is extensive.
 
In the United States, groups like the American Hiking Society and the Sierra Club offer programmes for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts; the Forest Service operates a programme called Passport in Time.
 
Among the 150 scientific projects sponsored worldwide by Earthwatch Institute next year will be a study - authorized by the State Department - of the American crocodile at a wildlife refuge in southern Cuba, and a survey of the Gobi Desert in Inner Mongolia.
 
Habitat for Humanity International recruits volunteers - the most famous being former President Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn - to build houses for the needy in the United States and overseas, while Heifer International lets volunteers visit its sustainable-development projects around the world, most involving livestock. By allowing volunteers to closely observe its projects, Heifer hopes that participants will spread the word about its work.
 
Some organizations require participants to have specific professional skills. These include Health Volunteers Overseas, which recruits doctors, dentists, physical therapists and nurses to teach medical professionals abroad, and the International Executive Service Corps, which sends executives overseas on consulting projects. One software entrepreneur, for example, recently went to Macedonia to help software companies with their operations and marketing.
 
Many organizations operate multiple programs worldwide, often focusing on education, child care, health care and conservation. These groups include i-to-i, Amizade, Cross-Cultural Solutions, Elderhostel, Global Citizens Network, Global Crossroad, Global Volunteers and Globe Aware.
 
In one Global Volunteers program, for example, participants work at a children's clinic in Tutova, Romania. And in a Globe Aware project in Luang Prabang, Laos, volunteers assemble wheelchairs from recycled products.
 
Program costs vary widely. Most do not include airfare, but many cover emergency medical evacuation insurance.
 
The International Executive Service Corps covers all expenses for participants, while the American Hiking Society's trips generally cost participants only a US$100 registration fee, in addition to air fare. Other programmes can be quite pricey, like a month long wildlife ranger training course offered by i-to-i in South Africa, at US$3,595, not including airfare, and Heifer's 14-day program to Uganda and Rwanda, at US$4,900, including air fare from the East Coast.
 
If the group that offers the trip is a charity, and if the trip is devoted to volunteer work, the chances are excellent that the cost will be tax-deductible.
 
LaVerne Woods, a specialist on charitable tax exemptions and a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine, a law firm based in Seattle, said that if there was "no significant element of personal pleasure, recreation or vacation in the travel," then expenses would be deductible. "If the accommodations you pay for are a condo on a beach in Maui and half your time is spent sitting on the beach sipping cocktails, there's a significant element of recreation," she said. "But if you're on a research vessel and spend most of your time collecting scientific samples, that sounds like a legitimate, deductible expense."
 
If you find the concept of volunteer vacations appealing, do your homework first.
 
"One real danger is when people are not thoughtful about what they want to get out of their experience and what their goals are," said Doug Cutchins, an author of "Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others." "The more you think about what you want to do and why, the more likely you'll find an organization that fits what you're looking for."
 
And don't have unrealistic expectations about brief trips, warned Zahara Heckscher, an author of "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas." "A lot of people have the glamorous but false image of how much volunteers can accomplish in a short period," she said. "Be humble about how much you might transform a community and the tangible differences you will make in the short term."
 
Ms. Heckscher also urges anyone who is considering such trips to talk to as many past participants as possible.
 
Prospective volunteers should also remember that not all programs are open to everyone. For example, Elderhostel trips require participants to be at least 55. And Passport in Time and the International Executive Service Corps say they have more applicants than they can accommodate.
 
Many volunteers say the right trip can add much value to their lives.
 
Carleen Kunkel, 63, of Trumbull, Conn., a former English teacher, is participating in her sixth Cross-Cultural Solutions program, this one in Tanzania. She said the programs had allowed her to "learn about the culture and not be a tourist - you learn about the people and feel you have some portion of belonging to their culture."
 
Last summer, Kimberlea Archer, 45, an investment banker based in New York, helped to remodel a women's art cooperative in Costa Rica through Global Volunteers. "There's something about giving when you're not writing a check," she said. "Giving sweat and hours means so much more than people can imagine.
 
"For two weeks I was without my cellphone and BlackBerry, and when I landed in the U.S., I found that the whole world had gotten along without me. Since I've gotten back, I've let go of things I couldn't control. The trip caused me to be more confident and less concerned about controlling the outcome, because ultimately, we really can't."