Volunteer Tourism

Islanders are finding a new way to travel—as volunteers, lending a hand.
Volunteers donated clothes to the villagers of Salkantay; dancing at the festival of Pan

Photos courtesy of Bob Link

Bob Link sat in the Plaza de Armas, the central park in Cuzco, Peru, just staring at the people walking by. He did this often on his vacation, also taking time to stop by the local markets and comb through the tables of colorful handmade belts and purses, searching for the perfect souvenirs. This is how he spent his free time. The rest of his six-week trip was devoted to the nuns and orphans at the San Francisco Diocese Special School and Orphanage.

Link, his wife, Jo, and their neighbor, Terrance Westerman, residents of Kealakekua, traveled with five other volunteers from various parts of the United States, with members of the group ranging in age from 21 to 63.

Hawai‘i resident Jo Link (far left) with two children from
the orphanage and Robyn, a volunteer; a typical
cobblestone street in Cuzco.

Photos courtesy of Bob Link

“It’s a fantastic way to enjoy traveling,” Westerman said of his volunteer trip, arranged by Globe Aware, a nonprofit organization, based in Dallas, Texas.

Volunteer tourism is a rising trend, said Kimberly Haley-Coleman, founder of Globe Aware, citing a 200 percent increase in trips since last year. “After Sept. 11, people are wanting to reach out and get involved, instead of just writing a check.”

Globe Aware typically offers one-week service trips, ideal for business people or students with limited time off. During spring and summer breaks, the number of college-age volunteers increases, as students take the opportunity to travel and participate within a community. Programs incorporate service projects with the local culture and leisure activities; Haley-Coleman attributes the growing interest to this mix of activities.

The volunteers on Link’s trip spent much of their time at the orphanage. Enclosed by 30-foot walls, the simple, stark environment of the children’s home resembled a prison. The six nuns who watched over the 90 or so children managed to keep them “clean, fed and not bleeding,” said Patrick Michael, who also traveled with the group. The eight volunteers spent time with the children, who were “dying for affection,” he said. Link was emotionally overwhelmed, at first, by the children climbing all over him, wanting his attention.

“Learning about another culture, not as a tourist, but as an active participant, is a wonderful experience,” Link said. Service projects created outside the orphanage allowed both the volunteers and children to get involved with the local community. The children helped construct and deliver wheelchairs, created inexpensively with bike wheels and plastic chairs.

“If you want to do good in this world, you can find a way,” said Haley-Coleman. Anywhere you vacation, short of Disneyland, will have a program, Michael said. “All you have to do is have a willingness. Have an open mind, open heart, open arms.”