I am in New Orleans for a vacation. But it's not the kind of vacation where I'll get to spend all day eating fabled food and all night partying on Bourbon Street — though there's time for a bit of that. In between the crawfish and the Mardi Gras beads, I am hanging drywall and spackling ceilings. Before heading for the French Quarter, I've got to wash the mud out of my hair and scrub the fiberglass from my hands.
I am a "voluntourist" and I am building a house.
Though the notion of volunteer vacations is not new — the Sierra Club has been providing opportunities for more than 100 years — there is a growing interest in spending leisure time helping others. And that includes animals. College students looking for a more meaningful spring break and mid-career professionals looking for something more meaningful, period, are two of the groups taking an interest in volunteer vacations.
"It has a lot to do with the very large global issues that have come up — 9/11, Katrina clearly, the tsunami in Asia, the recent attacks in Mumbai," says Doug Cutchins, co-author of Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures that Will Benefit You and Others (10th edition, Chicago Review Press, $18.95). Helping victims of these disasters empowers people, he says.
Cutchins' book profiles 150 organizations that offer voluntourism opportunities in the United States and abroad.
Earlier this year I signed on with the St. Bernard Project to help rebuild homes in St. Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. I was assigned to the home of Judy Moffett. She owns a one-bedroom house that Katrina had left flooded to the brim. Its brick exterior survived the storm, but the inside needed new walls, new floors, new everything. I also saw a one-page bio of Judy: Single. Age 45. Works in billing and accounting. Does art on the side. Grew up in this house. Has cancer.
I spent three days hanging drywall, cutting insulation and staple-gunning my heart out for this woman I'd never met. There were about a dozen other people on Team Moffett, as we called ourselves, including a trio of middle-aged women from New York City, a solo 20-something guy from Buffalo, N.Y., and a Chicago woman who has been on so many Katrina relief trips that the St. Bernard Project gave her a business card. Our two crew chiefs were from AmeriCorps and, despite being only 22 years old, knew their way around a cordless drill and RotoZip better than any of us. Not only did they teach us to build a house, but they filled us in on the backstory of St. Bernard Parish and took us on a tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the city's worst-hit areas.
Even with the eight-hour work day, we still had time to put the vacation in volunteer vacation. Each day we took an hour-long lunch break at one of the cafeterias around town. One afternoon I got a bathtub-sized portion of red beans and rice. The next, a mammoth fried chicken po'boy. Then, a "child's plate" heaped with macaroni and cheese, for which the server asked if I wanted red or brown gravy over the whole thing. I opted for neither, but that's about the only New Orleans indulgence I denied myself. There's something about volunteering that allows for guilt-free gluttony.
Why go all the way to Louisiana when there are plenty of hurting people here in Florida who could use a hand?
For a few reasons, actually. First, for those of us who have yet to make volunteer work a part of our normal routine, a volunteer vacation offers concentrated time for philanthropy. Participants get to see a new place, meet new people, have a cultural exchange, learn new skills and put their values into action. And although there are plenty of ways to make a difference at home, there's something about going away that changes you.
With my work day done by 4:30 p.m., I'd make the 15-minute drive in my rental car back to Camp Hope. Formerly Beauregard Senior High School, the two-story building has been turned into a makeshift hostel for volunteers with the St. Bernard Project, Habitat for Humanity and other hurricane relief efforts. It will be torn down at the end of May to make way for a new school, but until then it holds enough bunk beds for 700 people. I couldn't have found a better deal: $25 per night — including food! Hot breakfasts and dinners are served in the cafeteria; volunteers can pack a lunch to take to the work site.
But you get what you pay for. Camp Hope is begging to be a punch line: "I 'hope' lunch tastes better than breakfast. I 'hope' the shower has hot water today."
On my first morning, my pancakes were good but cold. The eggs were runny. Even the apple I took for lunch was mealy.
In the bathrooms, the faucet water was cold enough to drink. The outdoor shower was in a trailer that offered little privacy and no light after sundown, but at least it was hot. The indoor shower was sometimes cold, but at least it was, well, indoors. One afternoon my roommates and I returned from working to find that our newest bunkmate had fled for a hotel.
Still, the place was clean and the beds comfortable. I'm sure it beats living in a FEMA trailer, as many St. Bernard residents still do.
Reaping the rewards
If you're traveling alone and plan to stay awhile, Camp Hope is ideal for keeping costs down. But if you're in a group (and looking for coed sleeping arrangements), you can pool your money and share a hotel room instead. An engaged couple I met turned their voluntourism trip into a Valentine's Day getaway. They scored a $120-a-night hotel room in the French Quarter for only $80 by mentioning the St. Bernard Project.
I roughed it at Camp Hope, showering quickly after work and enjoying my free evenings. There were plenty of other folks who had come alone, and someone was always up for carpooling to the French Quarter. The Camp Hope staff had even set out directions to the Quarter, the basketball arena, a bowling alley and restaurants, as if they knew no one would be sticking around for Taco Tuesday.
So I treated myself to cheesecake with praline sauce at the Praline Connection, took in a show at Snug Harbor jazz club, met up with a family friend for dinner at the famed Mother's Restaurant, scarfed down beignets and cafe au lait at Cafe Du Monde, and dined at Herbsaint, the only white-table restaurant where I've ever said, "I'll have the gumbo of the day."
Still, none of my Big Easy hedonism was as gratifying as meeting Judy, the homeowner. It was my last day with the St. Bernard Project, and I was disappointed that she hadn't yet stopped by. Then, late that afternoon as I worked with a woman from Idaho, stapling insulation to the bathroom ceiling, I heard someone say, "I can't believe it. I can't believe it."
It was Judy and her sister, Gayle. For the first time in about a week she was seeing her house, which now had walls and a ceiling.
She walked through the house, putting an end to the mystery of which room was which. The room with all the windows was her dining room. The back room was the study. She'd used the sun room for painting and making ceramics, which she sold at shops in town. That was also where her dog slept.
Watching Judy, tears welled up in Gayle's eyes. Watching Gayle, tears welled up in mine, too.
I won't be there when Judy's house is finished in a few weeks. I won't be there to eat the "Welcome home" cake with whoever from the revolving door of voluntourists gets to slap on the final coat of paint. But just seeing Judy's excitement over her half-done house, I get why Ty Pennington acts like such a goofball on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. It's thrilling to help give someone a rare second chance, to fix what appeared to be irreparably damaged.
That's worth my vacation time.
Dalia Colón can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3112.