See the World (and Help It, Too) on a Volunteer Vacation

Service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on Earth. — Muhammad Ali

I’m in Zambia building houses with Habitat for Humanity. It’s 2009, my first Habitat build. The rain is jackhammering on the tin roof of the community house where our team waits for our daily instructions, which we won’t be able to hear because of the noise. It’s day three of rain like we have never seen in Seattle—rain that invades the village wherever it wants, making new roads and ruts, drowning corn patches, and soaking the mud huts. It is impossible to work.

Before the rains came, we had finished the foundation and had started making adobe bricks from the rich red earth, drying them in the sun. We felt great about our progress.

Brady Wright, one of the volunteers, looks at the rain outside and chats with Charles, the local mason, about his frustration. “I don’t feel I’m being very helpful,” Brady says.

“You came!” Charles replies. It is astounding to him that 17 people from the United States and Canada are building a house in another country for a stranger.

The first-time volunteers worry we won’t finish the house because of the rains. Our team leader, Jessie Strauss, stuns us by saying, “We’re not only here to build houses.” The veteran volunteers understand. She continues, “We’re here to build bridges, also.” Some of us wonder if she’s talking about actual bridges, since it’s been raining so much.

Once our 10-day build was over, we were hooked. Jessie told us that in all the Habitat trips she has led around the world (now more than 40), only two were finished from bare dirt to roof. We were there as cheap laborers to forward the process. The homeowners and local contractors finish the houses once the teams leave.

The real work? The human connections we make while tentatively trying to interact. We offer a few poorly-pronounced words in the local language. We use makeshift hand gestures. We learn each other’s folksongs and teach village children to do the Hokey Pokey. There’s a lot of laughter.

The take away? “I have worked on a team, touched different cultures, learned new skills, and made lifelong friends,” says Oralee Kramer. “On each build I see new perspectives of community life, family, work, and home.” I agree with Oralee. We could never experience these things looking out a tour bus window or staying in a five-star hotel.

Many people have enjoyed a couple of beach vacations, toured another country, seen a few national monuments, and visited a theme park. If you work for a living, you probably see a vacation as a way to rejuvenate. If you are retired, it’s not even called a “vacation.” (Vacation from what? It’s simply a trip.) So unless you require spa-like peace, volunteering to help someone—or further a cause—while traveling is a refreshingly addictive combination. When you help someone while learning something new, you are energized.

Jessie says, “On Habitat trips you see local life as it really is. I find that more fascinating than touring museums. And people say to me, ‘It’s so good of you to do this,’ as if it is a sacrifice. I never feel this is a sacrifice. It’s fun!”

Whether you count turtle eggs, bottle-feed baby goats, maintain hiking trails, or teach English, you are building bridges that our official international ambassadors and diplomats can’t.

Brady was delighted another way in Zambia. The house we were building was owned by a woman named Justina. We had laid bricks about waist-high level on two sides of the house, and the job site was decorated with shovels, one work glove, buckets caked with dried mortar, and a couple of skinny, skittish chickens. Brady finished lunch with the rest of the team in the community house and walked back to the job site, where he noticed Justina sitting alone on the dusty concrete floor, her back leaning against one of the half-finished brick walls, eating her lunch. Brady paused, sensing he was interrupting something. “Hi Justina. Ah. Are you having your very first meal in your new house?” She smiled, nodded, and continued to eat.

Brady had experienced new home ownership himself. However, in this village, where most houses are made of mud and sticks, a 400-square foot Habitat house is not just a house. It is a different world: dry and safe, with windows and a door that lock, and a shiny corrugated tin roof to shield against the sun and rain. Justina would not only have a new house; she’d have a home for her family—and some newly-energized friends who volunteered on their vacations.

Dori Gillam speaks on aging well, aging in community, and planning for a good death.  As a Seattle native, she has a bachelor’s degree in educational psychology and has worked for Sound Generations, AARP, and the Center for Creative Aging.


Get Inspired

Here are some websites to explore for ideas on volunteer travel:

Seattle resident Joyce Major, the author of Smiling at the World:  A Woman’s Passionate Yearlong Quest for Adventure and Love, occasionally teaches a continuing education class on volunteer vacations at North Seattle College. See


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