US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Escape to reality

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Vacations can make a difference

Some people think of a sandy beach and playing in the ocean or lake. Other people think of white-capped mountains and skiing down snowy slopes. But for some the ideal vacation includes more re-creation than relaxation. "Volunteer vacations" are the way to go for many service-minded vacationers. Programs such as the Sierra Club's Outings and Habitat for Humanity International's Global Village have long offered alternative travel opportunities for volunteers, but in recent years the trend has become increasingly popular. According to, there were 3.7 million "long-distance volunteers" (those traveling more than 120 miles to volunteer) working at locations inside the United States in 2007-and no telling how many more volunteered outside the country.

Historically, "voluntourism" (a term coined in 1998 that underwent a radical connotation shift in 2000, see has been the realm of the young adult, but today it's not just young individuals who are jumping at these opportunities. Entire families have started exchanging their Disney World adventures for more constructive (sometimes literally) experiences.

The McMillan family of Dallas, Texas, is one such family. The McMillans have been on three volunteer vacations with the nonprofit organization Globe Aware - two to Peru and one to Mexico. They began vacationing with Globe Aware when their two children were 5 and 7 years old. "We wanted to expose them to the realities of the world and instill in them a spirit of service at an early age," says Catherine McMillan. "It really makes them realize how lucky we are to have what we have."

Conversely, Catherine says, "it shows them that you can be happy with less-‘stuff' is not what makes a person happy." When the family goes on their trips, "the kids don't complain at all. In fact, often they're better than some of the adults on the trip!" And Catherine says she's always inspired by her kids' interactions with local children. "On every trip they always make plenty of new friends and find kids to play with, despite the language and cultural barriers."

Jim and Christine Artmayer from Cincinnati, Ohio, met slightly more resistance from their three teenagers at Bethlehem Farm, a Catholic service community in Clayton, West Virginia. On their first day, they were told that in order to conserve water, they would be allowed only two showers each during their week there, and one of them would have to be a bucket shower. Electricity would be used sparingly. There would be manual labor. There would be morning and evening reflection and prayer. But the Artmayer teens were accustomed to their traditional family vacations (including one to Hawaii the previous year) and "did not want to be there," says Jim. "At least not at the beginning." They reluctantly warmed up to the idea, though. "The adults were there because they wanted to be there," Jim says, "but by the end of the week, the kids wanted to be there, too."

Jim's teenagers were especially appreciative of the climate of acceptance they found at Bethlehem Farm. "They found that no one was being judgmental and everyone was very encouraging. Back home, with their peers, praying is certainly not the ‘cool' thing to do, but at Bethlehem Farm they realized it could actually be pretty neat to be reflective."

Both Catherine McMillan and Jim Artmayer say that the most important thing to keep in mind when preparing for a volunteer vacation is to keep an open mind and have no expectations, especially about what can and can't be accomplished. Catherine warns prospective volunteers that, "You can't change the world in one week. It takes time." Jim too urges patience but is quick to point out that, "People can do more than they think they can."  Including giving up a week on the beach for the opportunity to make a real difference in someone's world.

Additional resources:

8 Volunteer Vacations (BudgetTravel)

Alternative Travel (interview with Alison Gardner)

Volunteer Vacations

The Cost of Volunteering

Catholic Network of Volunteer Service