Volunteer vacations are one of the biggest trends in travel. If you've never really considered going on one, these volunteers' stories might just change your mind.
Teaching needy kids in Kanyakumari, India
"I brought construction paper and crayons, and the kids drew animals—it was a treat for them to have their work on the walls. I stayed at the school, in a cement room with a cot and a semi-flushing toilet. It was spartan, but not compared to how the villagers sleep, on beach mats on the floor. I was close to telling my school in America that I wouldn't return. I only spent six weeks in Kanyakumari, but it felt like years. Stories about my trip help my students back home appreciate what they have. Everyone wants the new PlayStation or cell phone—I get caught up in that, too—and the best way to get grounded again is by seeing how 75 percent of the world lives." —Kelly Abbott, 33, Castro Valley, Calif.
World Endeavorsworldendeavors.com, from $1,090.
Offering care in Salvador, Brazil
"While volunteering at a compound run by nuns, I did everything from companion work with the elderly to caring for orphans to cooking and cleaning. I spent a lot of time with one wheelchair-bound woman who couldn't speak. On my last day, I started massaging her hands with moisturizer. It was such a powerful moment—I realized that what everyone wants is to be touched and to feel emotionally connected to another human being. One of the other things I liked about my experience was that I was able to meet people from both the U.S. and abroad—men and women from 18 to 60. I remain in touch today with several friends whom I met while I was in Salvador." —Naomi Soffa, 37, San Francisco, Calif.
Cross-Cultural Solutionscrossculturalsolutions.org, from $1,695.
Creating community in Lucky Fork, Ky.
"Kentucky's Owsley County is one of the poorest counties in the U.S.—there wasn't running water until the mid-1960s. Our prime project was to work with locals on a bathhouse in a church, hospital, and community center complex built in the 1930s. The hope is that the community will use the buildings for events, which will bring people and income back to the area. I particularly liked that I did things with local people, not for them. Learning about their community was probably more important than the project. This trip made me appreciate how diverse our country is and helped me understand why people here have so many political and social perceptions." —Carli MacColl, 59, Seattle, Wash.
Global Citizens Networkglobalcitizens.org, from $975.
Treating the sick in Bamburi, Kenya
"During our two-week trip, we dug the foundation for a school. We also set up a one-day clinic, and we saw over 1,000 people. (I'm a physician's assistant.) One of our first cases was a boy whose throat and stomach hurt. He had been eating sand and rocks because his body craved various minerals. We were able to educate him—and many others—on the importance of eating meat and leafy greens whenever possible. And by questioning different people, we were able to identify a specific water hole as being home to a parasite, and we told everyone to avoid it. For me, the best part was leaving something sustainable, not just a quick fix like a Band-Aid or aspirin." —Erik Zenger, 39, Salt Lake City, Utah
Choice Humanitarianchoicehumanitarian.org, from $1,500.
Feeding the homeless in Washington, D.C.
"On the first day at a soup kitchen, we were organized into different stations—I chopped onions while others did salad prep. Another day, we loaded up food in vans and drove out to parks and other locations where there are a lot of homeless people, and we handed out sandwiches and soup. Volunteering changes your perspective and opens your eyes to things you weren't aware of—like how many different kinds of people are homeless. Other students come back from spring break and talk about how drunk they were. I was talking with some of the guys from my trip, and we felt we had so much more fun. Most of the homeless are so thankful you're there, and they welcome you. They really appreciate what you're doing." —Ryan Balding, 29, Sun Prairie, Wis.
Amizadeamizade.org, from $599.
Building homes in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala
"Working from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. for five days, we built three houses. Together with the villagers, we mixed concrete by dumping the ingredients on the ground, adding water, and mixing with a shovel and our feet. Then we'd form a chain and pass buckets of concrete down to the trenches. Some of the smaller kids helped us move cinder blocks, carrying them as far as they could, just so they could participate. I've never been around that kind of poverty for an extended period. You see what people do to survive on a daily basis, and it hits home that this is their reality. You can write a check to a worthy cause, but you don't see the impact of what you've done. On service trips, you see minute-by-minute the difference you're making." —Jared Simmons, 29, Cincinnati, Ohio
Habitat for Humanityhabitat.org, from $900.
Helping the handicapped in Siedlce, Poland
"For three weeks, I taught English at a center for both physically and mentally handicapped adults. The mornings were spent with the physically handicapped—some of them could barely speak, and it was often very slow work. With the mentally handicapped, the mental range was very wide. Most of the time, we colored, read books, sang songs, or danced ("Hokey Pokey" was their favorite). They seemed to enjoy just having someone pay attention to them. One young woman, Agnes, had a beautiful singing voice. At my good-bye party, she gave me an autographed CD of her songs. People really are the same no matter where you go. We speak different languages, but we share the same interests and concerns." —Pat Kalicki, 71, Vienna, Ill.
Global Volunteersglobalvolunteers.org, from $795.
Educating orphans in Ranong, Thailand
"I lived at the orphanage, so besides teaching four to five English classes a day, I also ate with the kids and hung out with them after school—it was all very different from my life as a teacher in the U.S. The kids, many of whom were tsunami orphans, didn't speak a lot of English, but somehow we were able to make it work. We'd sing songs, and I'd read them stories, and I had a world map so they could learn the names of other countries. I also brought supplies like crayons and sticky notes, which they just annihilated. When you live in an orphanage, you have to abandon the notion of privacy. I tried to explain to the kids that I don't like people in my room all the time, but they didn't understand and thought I'd be scared or lonely." —Holly Graham, 29, Boston, Mass.
United Planetunitedplanet.org, from $1,345.
The prices listed are for each group's lowest-price one-week trip and include accommodations, meals, transportation within the country, supplies, and certain activities. Some run domestic and international trips; others only work abroad.