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Giving back while you travel

By Eileen Ogintz, Tribune Media Services
Solomon Chelcher, left, and Isaac Alphonse talk about planting at the Richards Farm in St. Lucia.
Solomon Chelcher, left, and Isaac Alphonse talk about planting at the Richards Farm in St. Lucia.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Togetherforgood.org catalogs opportunities for families to volunteer
  • Disney is offering incentives to volunteer with "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day"
  • High-end hotels have developed ways for guests to help in local communities
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(Tribune Media Services) -- Avocados bigger than grapefruit, star fruit, breadfruit, wild watercress and vegetables I've never heard of...

We're not perusing a menu on the Caribbean island of St Lucia. We're touring a local hillside farm owned for more than 40 years by the Richards family. Isaac Alphonse, the purchasing manager for The Landings, a new deluxe resort where we are staying (great for families with more than 120 condo-like units), is showing us around -- and invites us to help in the fields.

Rock Resorts has initiated a new "Give and Getaway program" here and at their other resorts -- all designed to encourage visitors like us to literally get our hands dirty working on a trail or a farm while learning about where we are visiting in the process -- and getting a room discount for the effort, says Julie Klein, director of environmental affairs for Vail Resorts and Rock Resorts.

"All of our resorts are in beautiful places and this provides an amazing sense of connection to that place," she says. Visitors suddenly become focused on "more than what sunscreen they are using," she added. The bonus? Meeting locals.

That would include Isaac Alphonse, who loves farming so much that he volunteers here himself and plants so much at home that his wife complains there is no room for flowers, and Solomon Chelcher, 23, who by 9:30 a.m. has already planted 60 new Dasheen plants when we meet him in the fields. Dasheen is similar to potato he tells us, and St. Lucians eat it mashed or fried.

"I think many people are feeling like they are true citizens of the world and they want to make a difference when they travel. It's so easy to give back as part of a family vacation," said Nancy Schretter, editor of Family Travel Network.

Schretter has developed www.togetherforgood.org, which catalogs more than 90 opportunities for families to "give back" during visits to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. Projects in the United States and elsewhere will be added. Participating in these kinds of voluntourism activities also allow parents to reinforce key values that they share as a family.

The rest of our long weekend in St. Lucia, I looked for the fruits and vegetables we'd seen on the farm on menus at The Landings and in restaurants like Ti Banane at the Coco Palm Hotel where Chef Richardson Skinner told me he also buys produce from the Richards' farm. I don't think I'll ever look at an avocado or a coconut the same way again after Cecilia Richards -- the matriarch of the farm family and a grandmother of 15 -- offered us fresh coconut water from a coconut cut open by a machete outside her hilltop home.

You don't have to go far from home to help, though. Starting January 1, spend a day working for a community project verified by the HandsOn Network -- there are more than 70,000 to choose from -- and each person in the family who pitches in (up to nine in your household; even 6 year olds can participate) will get a free ticket to visit The Mouse. A million tickets have been pledged by Disney for 2010 through the "Give a Day, Get a Disney Day" program designed to encourage us to volunteer in our communities. (Check www.disneyparks.com for details.)

"The more people who step up, we'll be thrilled," said Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

At the same time, Frommer's has just published "500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference." "It doesn't have to be expensive," says author Andrew Mersmann, adding that the costs can be tax deductible whether you study mammoth bones in South Dakota, work with scientists at the Smithsonian or teach swimming in Kenya. "Travel is one of the best experiences you can give your kids," he says, adding that the experience will be all the more memorable if you add a "voluntourism" component.

If you've got the bucks and the interest, you can go to Africa and help the Maasai, work in an classroom or nature preserve in Peru, join an effort like those run by Friendship Ambassadors Foundation, which arranges a variety of "voluntourism" trips to New Orleans, among other places, or camp and work on the Continental Divide Trail.

Take a day from your stay at a RockResort, a Ritz Carlton or a Fairmont. Fairmont guests might help with a Habitat for Humanity project in Winnipeg or choose a package that includes a donation to a local organization.

Ritz Carlton guests might collect sea turtle eggs in Cancun, clean big cat habitats in Sarasota, plant flowers and clean up a river at a Jamaican orphanage or work with the blue iguanas in the Cayman Islands through the Give Back Getaways program.

More than 2,000 Ritz Carlton guests have participated in the program over the last 18 months, says Sue Stephenson, who oversees the international program. "It's not for everybody," she adds, though it may well turn out to be the most memorable day of your trip.

That's what the Moshers discovered when they arranged their own volunteer effort through Planeterra while traveling to Ecuador last Christmas from their home in Park City, Utah. Jenna Mosher, 13, and her sister Kristen, 10, not only volunteered in Cusco handing out rolls and hot chocolate to street kids but, prior to their trip, raised $3,000 for a program for the kids called House of the People of the Sun.

The kids collected toothbrushes and jackets too that they brought with them. "To see how kids live compared to our daily existence -- how excited the children were just to get a piece of bread" was an experience her daughters won't forget, said Lisa Mosher. "I saw different parts of my kids come out. I still get weepy thinking about it."