No day at the beach
Nonprofit groups offer volunteer vacations
By Marnie Hunter
(CNN) -- Imagine returning from vacation with tales of excavating mummies in the Atacama Desert in Chile or tracing the history of the planet's fresh water back nearly 20,000 years in Mongolia's Gobi Desert.
For Owen Jones, 70, of Cumming, Georgia, these experiences are among many gained during a half-dozen expeditions with Earthwatch Institute, an international nonprofit organization that connects volunteers with scientific field research projects.
"I like the meeting of the people," Jones said. "I like to go on these trips where they have a local cook that will cook ethnic food. I like to live in the conditions of the local people -- if they live in tents, that's OK."
Research is not the only route available to world explorers ready to volunteer their time and energy. Many organizations offer diverse volunteer opportunities -- such as working with children or building and conservation projects -- and do not require special skills or training.
Jones, who is retired from the land reclamation and erosion control business, took his first trip in 1989, after his wife put her foot down on roughing it in any more remote locations. Jones was pleased with the traveling alternative he found with Earthwatch.
"It wasn't a 'Love Boat' kind of deal, and it was [an organization] where you had mixed genders, mixed ages, and it wasn't all couples."
Sally Byrne, 43, a lawyer in Boston, Massachusetts, also has enjoyed this type of solo adventure.
"This is sort of a safe way to arrive in a country alone and just kind of see what happens," she said.
Byrne has taught and worked with children in Tanzania and at an orphanage in India, and worked on a conservation project in Costa Rica with Global Volunteers, a nonprofit development organization based in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Getting away from her routine and doing something completely different helps Byrne keep things in perspective.
"In a way I come back more energized than if I go spend a few days at the beach ... and a lot of people on these trips say the same thing," she said.
Costs for one- to three-week Global Volunteers projects range from $650 to $2,595. In 2004, the average price for a one-to-three week Earthwatch project was $1,850, with projects ranging in price from $800 to $3,500. Travel expenses to the group meeting point are not included for either organization.
In many cases, costs are tax-deductible for U.S. taxpayers, but speaking with a tax adviser before you leave is recommended.
Earthwatch participants range in age from 16 to over 80. Last year, nearly 3,500 volunteers participated in projects in 44 countries and 18 U.S. states. Volunteers from 11 to over 90 have participated in Global Volunteers projects.
For volunteers interested in building alongside people of another culture, Habitat for Humanity International's Global Village Program offers many international projects. Costs range from $1,000 to $2,200 for a nine-to-14 day trip overseas, excluding airfare. No previous building experience is required.
Food and accommodations, which are included in the prices, vary by organization and project location. Barb DeGroot, a spokeswoman for Global Volunteers, urges potential volunteers to think about their own strengths and what they want to do.
"We have a range of programs, so for people who really don't want a real rugged, too-challenging site, we have something for them, and we have more challenging programs."
DeGroot urges volunteers traveling with any organization to read up on the projects carefully and ask for references, so that they can talk with people who have experienced the trips firsthand. Making sure there will be adequate support from the organization on the ground also is a good idea, she said.
No matter what shape an expedition takes, the people and the culture the volunteer encounters often make the biggest impression.
"I think you see countries in a way that you wouldn't otherwise see them and learn about the people in a way that I certainly wouldn't otherwise be able to," Byrne said.