Transformative travel: Readers' tales of trips that changed their lives

While most New Year's resolutions fall as flat as a day-old glass of Champagne, those that revolve around travel can have a more lasting influence — not only on travelers, but on those they encounter along the way. USA TODAY asked readers to share a life-changing journey. The responses may inspire your own trip in 2009. Bon voyage!

Volunteering changed her world

It was the eve of 1999, and I made three New Year's resolutions. I can't remember two of them, but the third resolution was to do something I was always afraid of doing — taking a vacation by myself.

Sitting alone on a beach seemed lonely, so I applied with Global Volunteers to work in a day-care center for indigent, handicapped kids in Quito, Ecuador. I packed my bags — alone — that July.

The entire course of my life changed after those two weeks. For the first time in my life, I felt useful — and realized that each of us is born with an inherent desire to serve. If each of us can tap into what type of service we are born to do, we will clear space in our life to do it — and ultimately leave this world better than when we found it.

Since then, I have done much to sustain and promote that belief. In 2002, I developed, produced and hosted a public-access television show for Fairfax County, Va., called Get Out and Give Back that aired for 18 months, featuring volunteers from various non-profits in the greater Washington, D.C., area. In January 2005, I began writing a blog and newspaper column called "Get Out and Give Back" (getoutandgiveback.com), where I encourage readers to find their service passion.

— Jane Hess Collins, Alexandria, Va.

Orphans gave him gift of perspective

My wife, Jan, and I were part of a 26-person team committed to helping a small orphanage on the outskirts of Cape Haitian, Haiti. It was the first time we had been outside the USA. I had no idea of the need; after all, the evening news doesn't provide the smells and gravity of being in a Third World country.

We were at the orphanage for nine days. We built an outhouse. I helped a well driller in Sainte-Suzanne put in the first freshwater well in the history of the small mountain village. We carried a dying man with AIDS to a local American nurse in the middle of the night.

We had hoped to make a difference for the kids, but there was so little we could provide.

Sunday morning, all the children put on their best clothes and make their way to a local church. The same kids who have one meal a day of rice and peas, who sleep on concrete or broken-down bunks, who have no mother, no father, and no apparent future — these kids were singing in four-part harmony: "We've got so much, so much, so much, so much to be thankful for! We've got each other to be thankful for. We got our Jesus to be thankful for. We've got so much, so much, so much, so much to be thankful for!"

It has been 22 years since we made that trip. I see myself, my family, my country and my life completely different. Even the simplest things have a new perspective. I made no impact on the children of Cape Haitian, Haiti, but they sure changed me with a single song.

— Roger Dean, Canton, Ga.

He was in over his head — and loving it

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