Memorial mom Anita Gaylor says the last family vacation she went on was grungy, sweaty, dirty and exhausting – and she loved every minute of it.
This wasn’t a typical vacation. Anita and her family – husband Stuart and kids Graham, 17, Mollie, 14, and Sophie, 12 – spent their winter holiday building a house for a young mother in Mexico.
“My kids, especially my youngest, Sophie, said, ‘This is the best vacation we’ve ever taken.’ We travel the world and she said that,” Anita said. “My 17-year-old, who I thought would be grumpy spending a week with the family, was nodding his head as if he was saying, ‘This is cool.’”
The idea of spending vacation time volunteering is not new, but changes in the world, including tighter family budgets, new diseases and fears of violence, are making some volunteers reluctant to grab their passports.
Instead of traveling at significant expense to another country to help out – yes, volunteers quite often pay their own expenses – some folks are choosing to make a difference closer to home.
If they do a little research, they can find hotels that actually make it pay to give.
For example, Florida’s Doral Golf Resort gives free breakfast to guests who help with beach cleanups. South Florida’s Marco Island Resort gives 15 percent off spa treatments for volunteers who help the local YMCA by, among other things, reading to children. Rock Resorts in Colorado teamed up with the U.S. Forest Department to create programs that give guests room discounts in exchange for time spent cleaning up national parks.
At some J.W. Marriott locations, concierges will help guests search for just the right volunteer opportunity. In New Orleans, for example, “Big Easy Spirit” packages include special rates and goodies like free breakfast for those who come to serve.
Chores range from planting trees to hammering nails. The hotel also donates part of your room costs to Habitat for Humanity. (Use code P54 when booking your reservation).
For those who like their volunteering to retain a large dose of recreation spirit, one upscale hotel keeps a list of nationwide volunteer experiences that can be as entertaining for the guest as they are helpful for the charity.
The Ritz-Carlton’s “Give Back Getaways” offer one-day volunteer experiences with activities ranging from reading stories to shelter children in South Beach to rebuilding coral reefs in Orlando or cooking with a food-bank chef in Dallas.
The hotel sets up everything in advance, and all guests have to do is show up. They pay for the convenience, however, with fees ranging from $50 to $150.
On the other end of the spectrum is a program that pays the expenses of hard-core volunteers. Travelocity’s Travel for Good program awards $5,000 Change Ambassador grants to eight people who share a mission – go out and do good in the world. Applications are on the Travelocity website, and the deadline is September for the next round of grants. See www.Travelocity.com/t4g.
For those who want to make an immediate impact, looking closer to home might be the best answer. For Houstonians, the obvious place to look is a little, battered barrier island close to our hearts. Galveston Island suffered extensive damage during Hurricane Ike. Today, 10 months later, tourists once again are trekking to this favorite vacation destination, but the island still needs help.
The Hotel Galvez recently extended its “Giving Back to Galveston” package through the summer. In it, guests get 30 percent room discounts and free breakfasts in return for volunteering through Help4Galveston, a non-profit that organizes volunteers for local groups that need help since Hurricane Ike ripped through.
“We knew that Help4Galveston was doing a big push to get different groups to come in, so we just decided to do a package,” said Christine Hopkins with Galveston’s Mitchell Historic Properties, which owns The Galvez. “If individuals want to come in to volunteer, then they should get a good deal.”
“We have more than enough work to go around,” said Help4Galveston founder and director Erin Toberman. “We identify what they want to do in terms of volunteer work. Not everyone is interested in construction. Some people want to do something else.
“I have four guys in an RV from Pittsburg doing a five-city tour of volunteer work. They wanted to do something here in Galveston. Tomorrow, they will be unloading donated furniture.”
Whether it’s a group of knitters from Houston who have only two hours or a family of four who have an entire week, Erin says she will find a way for them to fill a real need in the community.
“We need people to choose to come into town and look for a way to contribute. So many things need our attention, like helping clean up debris in a state park or replanting wildlife to support the sand dunes, or even complicated tasks like electrical or plumbing repairs.”
• Have an idea of what kind of experience you are expecting.
• Be realistic and identify your limitations. If lifting heavy objects is a problem, you don’t want to end up at some warehouse unloading trucks.
• Listen. If it says to wear boots, wear boots. If it says to bring a hat, bring a hat.
• Give the organization lead time. The more time they have, the more opportunities they can find.
• Tell the organization about special skills or knowledge, whether, for example, you are a lawyer or master gardener. Then let them find a job suited to your skills.
• Share your interests. If you love bird-watching, picking up trash at the local nature preserve might give you a treat. If you are a WWII buff, you might like gigs at the local museums.
Source: Erin Toberman, Help4Galveston
Theresa Elliott, general manager at the Casa del Mar Beachfront Suites, says her hotel doesn’t have an official package, but that doesn’t mean staffers can’t steer volunteers in the right direction.
“We are not part of a nationwide reservations system. All our reservations come through Bobby, Robbie and Jason at the front desk,” Theresa said. “They live here, and if they know someone is coming down for a volunteer effort to help them build their community back, you bet they will find a discount rate.”
Wherever you go on your next vacation, Galveston or further away, the volunteer-vacation movement has made it possible to give, and sometimes even get a little steal of a deal for yourself. But coming back with good memories of your efforts depends on you.
After watching thousands of people flood the island to help, Erin of Help4Galveston said her best advice for would-be givers is to be honest with themselves.
“You don’t like the heat. You can’t pick up heavy stuff. Tell us,” she said. “We can arrange to have you at the Salvation Army in the air-conditioning for two hours. We have a lot of donations that have to be sorted.”
And if you are a little more Carrie (from Sex In the City) than Mother Teresa, there is an easier way to give back.
“If this is something that isn’t appealing to you, then the best thing you can do is come and participate in economic recovery,” Erin said. “Eat at local restaurants and shop at local stores.”
And that doesn’t just apply to Galveston. In this bad economy, a city doesn’t have to suffer a natural disaster to need a little recovery.
Watching people from her window at Casa del Mar, Theresa has seen the changes the volunteer spirit can have on a community. “These folks that are coming down here on vacation and volunteering at the same time,” she said, “it is such a double benefit. They are on vacation, and that is always fun. But they are also helping others. I don’t care who you are, that has to warm your heart and make you feel good.”
As for those vacationers who volunteer, they say their trips leave them with more than just a few souvenirs.
Anita said usually her family would volunteer through a church group or another local charity, but choosing to volunteer on their own, as a family, forced them to step away from the familiar. The fact that the only people they really knew were each other made the experience more rewarding.
“Figuring it out. Doing it as a family. We got out of our comfort zone, and we made a difference,” she said.
That’s something that no day at the beach or shopping spree can get you.