Posts Tagged ‘500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference’

Feeling So Honored

It was a bit of a Sally Field moment for me last night (You like me, you really like me), when I was presented the Lowell Thomas Gold Award from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation for the “Best Guidebook 2010” for my book, Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference. The award was unexpected (not a surprise last night, but it was a huge surprise when they informed me a few weeks ago) and a nice up moment on what has been a roller coaster of a year.

You needn’t read my book to find a way to be of service…but find a way. Volunteer. Be bigger than you are, audacious in what you decide to accomplish, and unstoppable in your cause, whatever that may be.

How to Plan a Volunteer Vacation

Here is an article at Frommer’s about six steps to planning your volunteer vacation. I was lucky enough to be asked for my two cents as Melinda Quintero put the piece together.

How to Plan a Volunteer Vacation in 6 Steps

Whether you’re looking to volunteer for an afternoon or for several weeks while on the road, organizations around the world are eager for your help. Don’t know where to start? You can plan a successful volunteer vacation by following these six steps.

By Melinda Quintero
July 28, 2010

Integrating any amount of volunteer time into your next trip requires some research before you leave. But as countless volunteer veterans will tell you, it’s worth the planning.

You can live abroad as a volunteer for an extended period of time through programs such as the Peace Corps ( However, traveling as a short-term volunteer has grown in popularity in recent years as more and more charities, non-profits, NGOs, and even travel agencies expand their programs to include appropriate work for a more casual visitor. In early 2010, even Disney offered a free day at a Disney park in exchange for a day of volunteer work with the HandsOn Network (

Here are some tips to help you find the best voluntourism trip. Pick up a copy of Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference for even more inspiration. Continue reading

Americans With Disabilities Act and Volunteering

Today, July 26, is the 20th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act, a civil rights law that prohibits discrimination based on disability and mandates access to places of business.

What a great day to make sure that your own actions and attitudes (and those of your family) embrace all equally. It is also a great day to look into volunteering opportunities that give you a chance to work with the disabled. Here are a few options to get you started on your search:

Here is the volunteer opportunities page for Disabled American Veterans.

Match-Up pairs volunteers with seniors with disabilities.

Work and Volunteer Abroad has a whole category of international volunteering with those with disabilities.

Of course, there’s a section in my Frommer’s book, 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, dedicated to volunteering with people with disabilities.

The Adaptive Sports Center is one of many organizations around the country and world dedicated (with the help of hard working volunteers) to improving activity opportunities for the differently-abled.

Volunteer Match lets you type in your zip code to find volunteer opportunities near you—use the keyword “disabled” or similar to refine your search. Then cross-reference and compare those results with the ones you get from United We Serve (

Volunteer with Guide Dogs for the Blind or one of the many other organizations that trains service animals.

Don’t stop here–let this tiny scratching of the surface be a springboard. There is something near to your location (at home and/or while on vacation) and there is also something near to your heart. Go out and find it.

World Cup-Inspired

So I’m not sure whether Paul the Oracle Octopus will choose Spain or the Netherlands to win the World Cup, but I do know that the World Cup has finally conquered the US with Football Fever (soccer for us with our weird naming), bringing us up to the level of the rest of the world where the sport has been the most popuar on the globe.

When I was researching sport volunteer options for 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, I had a tough time filling a chapter with any sport-focused volunteering that WASN’T soccer. I found a swimming coaching program here, maybe teaching tennis to kids in a distant land there, but mostly it was all about footie. So if you are a player or juts a fan, you can help kids and adults around the world find the importance of teamwork, exercise, and community building all with that black and white ball (or a bunch of t-shirts tied into a sphere–the beauty of soccer is there isn’t any fancy equipment or playing field required).

Find out more by checking these out, and using it as a launching pad–there are many more…

The Homeless World Cup takes place in a  different city each year, after qualifying tourneys in their own countries, championship teams, all homeless players, converge for a huge tournament run by volunteers like you. 2010 is in late September in Rio.

Also in Rio is a coaching kids volunteer gig via Institute for Field Research Expeditions.

i-to-i does soccer coaching volunteer vacations in Posada, Argentina (as well as a host of other volunteer vacation opportunities).

World Endeavors will get you to Accra, Ghana to work with kids as they play through their passion for football.

Pitch in teaching on the pitch in La Esperanza, Honduras with Intibuca Soccer Volunteers.

In Madurai, India, the sport and community clubs keep active with international volunteers who visit and work with Travellers Worldwide. Working with the same organization, kids in Ja-Ela, Sri Lanka need volunteers like you to help get fields safe (gravel, dirt, and broken glass don’t make for great play) and run tournaments.

How about some soccer coaching in Chisinau, Moldova? Projects Abroad gets you there and sets you up to help kids excel.

In Hout Bay, South Africa, the vuvuzelas were blaring for the World Cup, and kids are eager learners, benefitting from your coaching with Abang Africa Travel.

Closer to home, in Santa Cruz, California, the Resource Center for Nonviolence has inspiring volunteer programs focused on community sport/soccer league for at-risk kids.

There are 14 urban areas across the United States: Atlanta, Bay Area/San Francisco, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, DC, Denver, L.A., Miami, Milwaukeee, New England, New York, Seattle, and St Louis that all benefit from the volunteer efforts of soccer coaches and supporters via the America SCORES program for sport and creative expression.

Shermans Travel Interview

A lovely thing about having friends and colleagues in the industry in which you work means that there arise occasions for mutual back scratching. A wonderful (and newlywed) pal of mine, Ms. Blane Bachelor, with whom I had the pleasure of traveling  to Scotland last year, recently  interviewed me about voluntourism. Shermans Travel will get you where you’re going and find deals to get you there…and their Adventure Blog currently features this interview.

About Adventure Travel

Blane Bachelor is always up for the next big adventure, whether rock-climbing in the Caribbean or hunting for the season’s best adventure-travel deal.

andrew-mersmann-resize.jpgPhoto courtesy Andrew Mersmann
Several years ago, Andrew Mersmann, editor of Passport magazine, was on assignment in Key West when his group learned that a pod of 27 pilot whales had beached themselves nearby.

Upon hearing the news, Mersmann “tossed [his] itinerary in the air and started getting involved” with the volunteer effort to save the seven surviving whales. He donned a borrowed wetsuit and a flotation device and quickly learned how to ladle water over the animals’ skin so they wouldn’t get sunburned, while keeping their blow holes above water.

“I don’t care what religion you belong to, how you were brought up, what you believe, when you’re looking into that whale’s eye and trying to keep it alive, you see God,” Mersmann says. “That whale experience was a majorly pivotal moment.”

Since then, Mersmann’s volunteer travel includes trips with a medical and humanitarian group on horseback in Rajasthan, India; endangered manatees in Crystal River, Fla.; and the homeless on Los Angeles’ Skid Row. He’s written Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, which focuses on the exploding sector of volunteer travel, and also writes a daily blog,, on the subject.

I spoke with him about “voluntourism” – and why it makes such a great travel experience for adventurous types.

What are some of the factors involved in the “voluntourism” trend?

There are a couple of things that are feeding this frenzy. As information has over the last several years become so much more readily available, everybody knows we’re a global community. People know and are aware of what’s going on beyond their front door – and a lot of what’s going on is not good. And because there’s a universal awareness, there’s this bigger sense that people can actually help and have an impact. This is really about having an authentic experience in a community or a place. If you’re working side by side with locals saving baby elephants, or clearing brush off the trail, you’re having an impact on that community. And you’re taking that impact back home with you and that’s a huge thing. It’s so much better than being in hotel or restaurant with a little dance in the middle of dinner and [hotel officials saying], “Oh, look at this cultural performance!”

What sort of experience or skills do you need?

Everybody knows about the Peace Corps, or about disaster response, but that requires a lot of special skills. This kind of travel needn’t really require any experience or skills, and you just jump right in.

What type of travelers does the experience draw?

The age is pretty diverse. People who have a lot of money to travel are older, so a lot of baby boomers do these sort of trips. And then there’s the young gap year, the backpackers who take a year off to find themselves in the world, that demographic.  But the cool thing about this kind of travel is that there are ways to do something in an afternoon, or a week, or a couple of weeks, without having to make a commitment of a ton of time or money. There are ways to have an effect in an afternoon.

Tell me about the costs involved.

There are lots of opportunities where it’s free, it’s not going to cost you any money, and [organizers will] pay for your room and board for the work you do. And there are some trips where you’re going to pay $10K and room and board. If you’re a volunteer for a 501c3 nonprofit or an international NGO and you’re not adding extra days to go touring, a large portion or all of your trip can be tax deductable. Your meals, hotels, transportation – all of that is considered in service to the organization. So that offsets a lot of the cost. There are even some trips where you can get paid a bit, but it’s not an income. Everybody should check with their tax adviser beforehand.

For the more adventurous traveler, what kinds of trips are out there?

The way my book is organized is that chapters are all broken down into the type of work, and there’s lots dedicated to intrepid, adventurous travelers. There’s a huge section about trips where you work with endangered species and other animals. There are programs to work with big game and conservation throughout Africa, pink dolphin expeditions in the Amazon, lion expeditions in South Africa. There’s this category of animals that is called “charismatic megafauna” – they are animals that capture people’s hearts and make them care more. Giant pandas, elephants, dolphins – they make people say “wow” and tend to affect people more than, say, a snake.

I would imagine there are lots of opportunities for environmental-type trips, too?

There’s a whole chapter on healing the environment, tree planting, greening and cleaning, trail building and ranch volunteers. The Appalachian Trail offers lots of opportunities, and it’s not that you just go and move a rock that fell. Some of the work consists of blazing new trails, clearing brush when stuff gets overgrown, or adding signage for hikers and campers. Usually programs have specific weeks and weekends where people will be camping. You might hike 4, 5, 6, miles before you get to the work spot with a shovel slung over your shoulder.

Any specific trips or opportunities to make note of now?

There’s a category of travel that involves rebuilding after disaster, both natural disaster and recovery from war. These experiences take a special kind of spirit and heart. There are still giant refugee areas throughout Africa. Post-genocide Rwanda is in huge need of help right now. And Haiti is just about to start opening up to non-trained volunteers. People can [soon] start getting in there and not be in the way.

Mother’s Day Inspiration


To my mom and every mom out there, and to the nurturing spirit in each and every one of us.

If you’re considering a volunteer vacation, on this day I offer up ideas of a few opportunities out there where you can make a difference in the life of moms. (From Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference)

A program to work with single, homeless mothers in Cochabamba, Bolivia—you’ll help with day care and nursery work for the kids, homework for the older ones, and skills education for the moms who are looking for work. Live with a local family to be completely immersed in the local culture for this 2-week project. Volunteering Solutions

In Xela, Guatemala, there is a home for battered women and their children that treasures the input of international volunteers. Be of service to moms and kids as they try to get life moving forward again. The shelter is managed by women for women, though all volunteers are welcome. You’ll live with a host family for a one- or two-week program. United Planet

There are several Women’s Empowerment volunteer programs in Delhi, India. Societal norms and devotion to caste systems make for systemic oppression in many Indian households, but this program offers practical training through several avenues such as literacy training, job skills, and computer training, among others. 1 or 2 weeks in shared volunteer accommodations. Or, alternatively, there is a Teenage Mother’s Home in Cusco, Peru, that places volunteers through the same organization for 2-week stints (males and females welcome, and a Spanish Language immersion program is available as part of the placement) Volunteering Solutions

Here is a project working with a Women’s Business Collective in Xilochico, Mexico. 10 days in the high country building business skills and actually building the local casita workhouse for the women’s project, while living in a hotel run by local Nahua women. Global Citizens Network

How about a journey to Kathmandu, Nepal, where you’ll work to create a healing environment for abused girls and women? Women only on this 2-week gig, living on-site in the all-female facility. United Planet

There are numerous Women’s Empowerment programs all over the world, hungry for volunteers. This is just the most meager appetizer to get your brain working in that direction.

Nurturing is an amazing thing. Being devoted to others is neither exclusively maternal nor paternal—it is human. And we are a global family. Be there.

Smithsonian Volunteers

Tomorrow, Wednesday February 17, I am going to be in Washington DC doing a speaking engagement and book signing for a program at the Smithsonian Institution.

Inspired by the eye-opening events of 9/11, the Asian tsunami of 2004, and Hurricane Katrina, more people are waking up to the value of service—and realizing that their vacation may be the best place to incorporate it into their hectic lives. Even more profoundly, many travelers are deciding that the best way to recharge may not be lying on a beach but stepping outside of their normal routine to make a difference in the lives of others. The result is an experience that allows travelers to explore a culture in depth, make new friends, and come home feeling that they have learned and benefited even more than those they have helped. This evening, Andrew Mersmann shares the range of volunteer vacations available in stunning locations around the world.

Mersmann’s book 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference (Wiley) is available for signing after the program.

Since the talk is all about volunteering, it’s fun to look at the volunteer options working with the Smithsonian—the world’s largest museum organization. Residents and visitors to the nation’s capital can work as volunteer docents, in the volunteer information desk program, telephone info program, amazing and unique Behind-the-Scenes program with researchers and scholars, special support programs, and seasonal programs like summer volunteering and the Folklife Festival.

Here’s a chance to give back while visiting the District.

More information here.

The Voluntourist-Radio Show

Below is a link to listen to an hour-long radio show I did with David Clemmons. The show is called The VolunTourist and is part of his terrific website,

It is a full hour long discussion–and who these days has an hour? But wanted to make it available.

The Voluntourist link

Volunteering in China

510545_76727771I just learned today that my book, Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference, is going to be translated and sold in China.

I’m pretty chuffed about that, so I wanted to focus today’s post on volunteering in China.

Hands on Shanghai helps connect China-based and visiting professionals to charitable organizations in Shanghai for short-term volunteer assignments. If you’re on vacation in Shanghai, “The Paris of the East,” you can make a volunteer commitment of just a few hours and really make a difference for local children, schools, elderly, environmental programs, or construction projects.

Here’s a Chines proverb I’m pretty fond of: If you want happiness for an hour, take a nap. If you want happiness for a day, go fishing. If you want happiness for a year, inherit a fortune. If you want happiness for a lifetime, help somebody.

The Book

160619_cover.inddWell–here it is. This is the book that kept me on self-imposed house arrest all winter and spring, tilting at the windmills of time trying to get it done.

It is now available at online retailers (, Barnes & Noble, Borders, etc) and I hope at your local bookstore as well. I love local bookstores and hope you’ll patronize yours (they are a disappearing breed).

I hope you’ll want to pick it up and thumb through it, maybe find something that catches your eye, sparks your imagination. If you do, let me know what you think.

And especially if it serves as a tool for you to plan some travel and go out there determined to make a difference, please please let me know that as well. It would mean the world to me to know that.