Five that Give Back
Enjoy rich experiences while cutting costs and doing good for communities here and abroad. Here are some ways to travel, get involved and avoid tourist traps while walking lightly on the Earth.
Shel Horowitz has been sleeping on strangers’ floors, couches and private guest suites for decades now. In the process, he’s met peace activists, ecologists and friends with whom his family still interacts. But he’s not just couch surfing; he’s homestaying, a travel option that runs the gamut from traditional foreign-exchange visits for students to the nonprofit peace outreach program Horowitz has been involved in since 1983, called Servas (Joomla.Servas.org). The way he sees it, he’s doing his part to spread cross-cultural understanding and making travel more affordable.
There’s the time he visited Colorado on a homestay and met a couple who gave him a private tour of their collection of Native American art. Last year he stayed with the director of Guatemala’s National Park Service and another man active in sustainable development work in the country’s highlands.
“You get such a richer experience traveling with homestay,” observes Horowitz from his farmhouse in Hadley, Massachusetts. He advises prospective homestayers to verify the number of nights agreed upon and then pay a host for their hospitality beyond that, and also expect to spend time with your hosts in the evenings. Finally, be prepared for any kind of accommodations. “You have to be somewhat adventurous,” he says.
As a renter, San Francisco resident Melanie Jones figured home swapping wasn’t in the cards for her. But when she gave it a try, she found herself in a cozy studio in Paris’ ninth arrondissement near a train station with easy access to the city’s major attractions. “It’s a unique way to connect with people who are different from us and to put ourselves in situations to see the world through someone else’s eyes,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to do that when you’re literally eating off someone else’s dishes and sleeping in someone else’s bed.”
Although scores of home-swapping websites offer to help streamline and vet potential swaps, she chose to post her ad on Craigslist. A 20-something Frenchman wanted to visit his girlfriend who was staying in San Francisco. She notes that it’s important to both trust the person with whom you’re swapping and to set ground rules.
The World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms () movement matches eco-conscious urbanites with organic farms around the world. You stay for free and receive some meals from the farmer host, repaying him by weeding, preparing soil, planting and even building fences.
It’s a way to integrate into a community, says Lucas Weiss of Brooklyn, who has taken weekend trips to the Meadowstone Farm of Tim Wennrich, in Bethlehem, New Hampshire. Staying in a farmer’s house and eating with his family gave him a taste of life he wouldn’t have experienced if he had stayed in a motel or bed and breakfast.“We got to see first-hand how much work can get done when you have four extra hands,” says Weiss. “You really get to see the inner workings of the [agricultural] community.”
No gardening experience is required, but come prepared to work up to six hours a day, for several days. You may need to bring your own tent or sleeping bag.
Brooke Bailey was new to both yoga and volunteer work in 2006, but after seeing the devastation Hurricane Katrina wrought in New Orleans in 2005, she decided to do something. Bailey scheduled her yoga training sessions around days spent participating in the demolition, cleaning, painting and renewal work the city so desperately needed. It was her first volunteer sojourn, but it hasn’t been her last.
Bailey reports that the effort was life-changing for everyone involved: “I really learned about giving just to give and not expecting anything in return. I realized that even if they aren’t literally my community, even if they’re halfway around the world, they’re still humanity.”
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Jill Gordon had been volunteering in inner-city Chicago schools teaching literacy for years when a friend invited her to a talk about a girls’ school in Afghanistan. That’s when she knew she wanted to take her volunteer work global.
First, Gordon joined the Chicago Women’s Initiative of CARE (care.org), a nonprofit organization fighting global poverty, to help organize talks and fundraisers for education programs; she saw some of that money at work later, when she visited remote areas of Peru. A few years ago, she visited rural India, where CARE funds schools and nutrition programs, and she was allowed to feed infants their first bites of solid food in a Hindu Annaprashan (first rice-eating) ceremony.
“I don’t know if I would have gone to India, otherwise,” remarks Gordon. “I just loved meeting the real people in India, the kids and the mothers groups. We got to see what India’s really like.”
Many nonprofits offer these kinds of travel, from Christian groups to United Way, which has an Alternative Spring Break service program for teens (LiveUnited.org/asb). To find a program that suits your interests, ask groups that you support if they offer such trips and how they’re funded, so more of your time, treasure and talent goes to the people who need it.
Heather Boerner, a freelancer based in San Francisco, CA, is a contributing writer for . Contact her at .