-- This Thanksgiving season — and all year — why not show your thanks by putting the emphasis on giving? Sheryl Kayne, author of Immersion Travel USA: The Best & Most Meaningful Volunteering, Living & Learning Excursions, shares her favorite volunteering vacations with Tim Smight for USA TODAY.
Heifer Ranch Perryville, Ark.
"Heifer International works to end world hunger by providing sustainable gifts of livestock and agricultural training to impoverished people around the world," Kayne says. Many of the animals the organization donates are raised on a 1,200-acre ranch in rural Arkansas. "The ranch welcomes volunteers, who participate in caring for livestock, supporting administrative operations and putting together educational programs for the public." 800-422-0474; heifer.org
Fur Seal RookerySt. George Island, Alaska
Part of a five-island volcanic archipelago in the Bering Sea, St. George Island is the principal breeding ground for Northern fur seals. Earthwatch Institute, a non-profit group that funds and conducts environmental research, offers a 10-day vacation to monitor and study this threatened species. "Participants hike to the rookery and spend four hours each day observing the seals and recording numbers," Kayne says. 800-776-0188; earthwatch.org
The Hole in the Wall Gang CampAshford, Conn.
"Founded in 1987 by Paul Newman, this wonderful facility provides a recreational and therapeutic camping experience for children with serious medical conditions," Kayne says. Open from early June through late August, it welcomes volunteers to serve as camp counselors. 860-429-3444; holeinthewallgang.org
Navajo NationTuba City, Ariz.
"For a volunteering opportunity that is also a cultural experience, you can spend a week at the Navajo Nation in Tuba City," Kayne says. Amizade, a worldwide community service organization, enlists volunteers to tutor Navajo schoolchildren, organize recreational activities and assist with cultural programs. "Volunteers also participate in Navajo traditions to learn about and experience the culture." 304-293-6049; amizade.org
Continental Divide TrailRocky Mountain Region
The 1,600-mile Continental Divide Trail, which traverses the spine of the Rocky Mountains from Canada to Mexico, was designated a National Scenic Trail in 1978. "Each year from May through early October, the non-profit Continental Divide Trail Alliance recruits volunteers to help repair, maintain and expand various segments of the trail," Kayne says. "This is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors while helping to preserve a national treasure for future generations." 888-909-2382; cdtrail.org/getinvolved
Big Dipper Eco FarmKingsley, Mich.
Want to learn how to farm organically from people who've been doing it successfully for more than 20 years? Volunteers at Big Dipper Eco Farm can work a few days, a week or longer in exchange for room and board. "Tasks include weeding, hoeing, picking and packing crops for market," Kayne says. "Family-style meals are prepared and eaten together." Big Dipper is a member of WWOOF-USA (wwoofusa.org), an organization that links volunteers with organic farmers around the country. 231-263-3639; localdifference.org/farmdetail.asp?id=133
Historic "Shotgun Houses"Cairo, Ill.
As part of a redevelopment effort in this historic river town situated at the confluence of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, volunteers can spend a week helping to renovate abandoned shotgun-style houses. "These are unique post-Civil-War-era dwellings built on narrow lots — one-room wide and with all the doors aligned," Kayne says. "Volunteers work with building conservation specialists to rehabilitate the homes with the goal of providing quality affordable housing." The program is organized by Heritage Conservation Network in partnership with Southern Illinois University and local residents. 303-444-0128; heritageconservation.net/ws-cairo.htm
The Elephant SanctuaryHohenwald, Tenn.
The Elephant Sanctuary is the nation's largest natural-habitat refuge for elephants that have been retired from circuses and zoos. "Set on over 2,700 acres, the sanctuary has separate environments for Asian and African elephants, with pastures, forests, spring-fed ponds and heated barns," Kayne says. Volunteers help with chores such as painting, fencing, facility renovation or construction of new habitat areas. 931-796-6500; elephants.com
Heron Lake State ParkLos Ojos, N.M.
Many state parks nationwide need assistance with special events. At New Mexico's Heron Lake State Park, volunteers can help with the Osprey Festival, held each July to spotlight one of North America's largest birds of prey, which nests in the park. "Festival volunteers are trained and employed as needed for activities including pontoon boat tours, assisting naturalists with live raptor exhibits, and helping visitors view osprey nests with spotting scopes," Kayne says. 505-588-7470; www.emnrd.state.nm.us/prd/heron.htm
Louisiana Children's MuseumNew Orleans
More than three years after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, residents are still in need of help. Under a program run by Relief Spark (reliefspark.org), a community-based organization that coordinates volunteer efforts in the New Orleans area, volunteers can help rebuild children's hope and self-confidence at the Louisiana Children's Museum. "Volunteers participate in hands-on art and science projects, interactive learning games and storytelling for visiting school groups," Kayne says. 504-586-0725 (ext. 204); lcm.org