Taking a week or two to help people can absolutely make a difference in their lives--and your own
In the summer of 1978, a young Indian accountant named Chandru arrived in rural Northern Ireland, hoping to work with his hands. In his two weeks at Glebe House--an old rectory converted into a retreat for children, away from the conflict and violence of Belfast--Chandru built windows and window frames so the derelict stable and garage could be converted into a bunkhouse and recreation room. He also crafted sturdy benches for the dining hall. This past spring, Glebe House finally replaced Chandru's windows with double-glazed modern ones; the benches are still there.
"People just couldn't believe that the windows were made by hand, and by an accountant," says Helen Honeyman, who set up and ran Glebe House for 23 years largely with the help of long-term and vacationing volunteers from Service Civil International (SCI), a network of grassroots groups across the globe. "Even two weeks' experience can have a profound effect."
Honeyman retired six years ago, but she lives in the village near Glebe House and serves on the board of directors. She's what you would call dedicated, mission-driven, inspired--exactly the kind of person who volunteers can expect to encounter on these trips, the kind of person who makes it worth the work (and makes the work not seem like work at all). "Everyone wants to feel we've contributed something, that we've made a little mark somewhere," she says.
And she should know. In 1966, Honeyman was a volunteer herself with SCI USA, at a summer camp in Palatine, Ill., for kids from inner-city Chicago. It was there, where the kids were white, black, and Hispanic but shared many of the same economic and social disadvantages, that she got the idea for a camp that would build community between Catholics and Protestants. It's a long story, but by 1974 the Belfast Rotary Club and the International Voluntary Service--Northern Ireland, a branch of SCI, purchased Glebe House, a 16-acre parcel with several dilapidated buildings just a mile's walk from the Irish Sea.
Honeyman has seen dozens of volunteers from many nations come and go, some for a week, some for a year or longer. The continual coming and going can take its toll, physically and emotionally. But the work couldn't possibly go on without the volunteers, and hosts wouldn't want it any other way. Much more than just cheap labor, the volunteers are an infusion of culture and diversity for an otherwise isolated community. They give the children at Glebe House a significantly broader view of the world, beyond politics and stereotypes.
Recently, Glebe House hosted young mothers and their babies. "One of the young mums, I'd known her as a kid," says Honeyman. "She was remembering everything so clearly. And what she was remembering was the volunteers." There was the supermarket manager from New Jersey who planted a summer vegetable garden, producing way more zucchini than the staff and kids could handle. There was the Serbian volunteer who, before his arrival, studied Irish folk songs on the Internet and played one after another at the annual fund-raiser (including many lyrics even the locals had never heard). And there was the farmer from Virginia who helped the staff build fences that last to this day--after he returned to the U.S., he left farming for a career in social work.
"Not to get too sappy," says Honeyman, "but you get an understanding that kids are kids the world over. It's a very small snowballing. Once you've done this sort of vacation, you're hooked."
Here are several volunteer programs. For more, check out responsibletravel.com, a U.K. site with links to opportunities worldwide.