Take a Working Vacation

Pam and Darin Bowers had their hearts set on using their vacation time to take their health care skills (Pam is a nurse, Darin an ophthalmologist) to people truly in need of them. And they wanted their children to be part of the experience. Bringing eye care to the remote country of Honduras, meanwhile, was not their three daughters’ idea of a fun summer getaway. For six days, the Lynchburg, Va., family treated patients in Roatan, an impoverished island off the Honduran coast. “It was extremely hot, and 180 people came through on that first day,” says Pam. “But every day, after we left the clinic, we’d do something fun. Every evening, there were these beautiful sunsets. The water was clear, and we’d often go snorkeling.” In the end, though, the trip far exceeded all of their expectations because it meant so much more than a good time.

Nearly a quarter of all travelers are interested in volunteer vacations, according to the Travel Industry Association. Travel agents, resorts and volunteer organizations are promoting so-called “voluntourism” and making it the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry. Interested? Here are just a few of the many voluntourism options out there:

Take a hike and talk to the animals Volunteer projects suitable for kids are often tacked on to more traditional vacations, according to John Stacy, owner of It’s Your Trip Travel & Tours, an online travel agent in Columbus, Ohio. One of his company’s most popular vacations combines National Park tours with a two-day stop to care for animals. Travelers visit Zion and the Grand Canyon and then veer off to Kanab, Utah, home of Angel Canyon and the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, where thousands of rescued cats, dogs, horses and other pets live, and visitors can provide some all-important attention.

Resort to something different In today’s economy, just like every other business, resorts are eager for your business. Many have teamed up with local charities and organizations to guide guests to volunteer opportunities nearby. In return for reaching out, some resorts give back with coupons for lunch or a spa visit. The Marriott in Wailea Beach, Hawaii, recently worked with Habitat for Humanity to offer discounted rooms and meals in exchange for hours on Habitat’s building sites in Maui.

Cultural immersion Mainstream sites like Travelocity have partnered with Globe Aware, Earthwatch Institute and other programs to meet traveler demand for trips that make a difference, even trips for as short as a week. For families, Cross Cultural Solutions offers 20 programs in 12 countries -- including Thailand, Morocco and Brazil -- suitable for kids as young as 8.

The Bowers family has gone to Roatan every year since that first trip in 2004, and the girls are completely on board, planning their calendars around it. Because of the experience, Katelyn would like to go to medical school. “We went to Honduras with the idea we have a lot to give back,” says Pam. “But we learned so much. By our standards, they have nothing, and yet they are such contented people. We come home feeling as though our lives have been so enriched.”