More Americans Take Volunteer Vacations

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When you think of teenagers on spring break, visions of Daytona Beach or Cancun may come to mind -- not necessarily a trip to Cambodia.

But that's where Kate McNamara, a 16-year-old New Yorker, went on vacation with her family, volunteering to teach children English and build wheelchairs for land mine victims.

"It wasn't that long and it was a small group of people … but it made just such a huge difference, " she says. "It was one of the most rewarding things that I think that I've ever done."

Her mother, Elizabeth McNamara adds, "In a world that needs so much, just to a little bit to make a difference in someone's life is a very positive experience."

Watch Gigi Stone's report on "volunteer vacations" Saturday on "World News." Check your local listings for air time.

More Americans are choosing to go on philanthropic vacations -- along with their extra time and money. Globe Aware, the nonprofit group that organized the McNamaras' Cambodia trip, says enrollment has gone up 40 percent every year since the organization started in 2001.

Last year, more than 65,000 Americans traveled overseas to take part in volunteer vacations, estimates Stefanie Rubin, director of the International Volunteer Programs Association. Organizers say there was a surge of renewed interest after 9/11 and the Asian tsunami in 2004.

"I think it's got people thinking about the world: 'What's out there? What real need is out there?' And how they can connect and be a part of this beautiful world we're in?" says Kimberly Haley-Coleman, the executive director of Globe Aware. "I suspect that there is a growing contingent of people who feel that writing a check to an organization doesn't feel as significant as donating their time. Both are important."

It's not just overseas: After Hurricane Katrina, thousands of volunteers flocked to the Gulf region to help rebuild.

More companies are joining in as well by organizing charitable activities for their employees.

Home Depot provides resources for its workers to help build affordable housing and playgrounds in New Orleans and around the country. Last year, more than 40,000 of the company's employees took part in one or more of these volunteer projects on their day off.

"Once you do one [a volunteer project] and you see those children over there … it gets your heart and you can't stop," says Seth Owen, a Home Depot employee who helped build a playground for Hiram Elementary School in Atlanta.

The company admits that such ventures benefit the company's bottom line. It gets free advertising by using Home Depot products, and establishes business contacts in the various communities.

"We have to be good philanthropists, good citizens and strategic investors in our community," says Kevin Martinez, the vice president of community affairs at Home Depot.

Sidebar: Interested in a Volunteer Vacation?

If you're interested in taking a volunteer vacation, there are some things to keep in mind:

If your company isn't paying for it, the cost of a one-week volunteer vacation usually starts at around $1,000. But there is a silver lining: It is tax deductible.

The online travel agency Travelocity recently announced a Travel for Good program to make information about volunteer vacations more easily available.

Make sure you're traveling with a nonprofit not a commercial organization, because they're required to account for how money is being used.

Check that you're with a company that provides emergency medical insurance.

LINKS:

http://www.globeaware.org/

http://www.volunteerinternational.org/

http://www.habitat.org/

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