Taking a vacation with a purpose is ‘good for the soul’

Michael Miller

Sara Thomas’ summer vacation won’t be spent at a resort or on a cruise.

It won’t even be spent just bumming around the house.

Thomas, an advanced practice nurse at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria, Ill., will be in Cyvadier, Haiti, tending to the medical needs of the poor as part of the 20-member, July 13-25 trip for the Friends of the Children of Haiti.

Giving up two of her four weeks of annual vacation time is an easy decision for Thomas.

"It’s good for the soul," she said. "It’s the soul vacation."

Thomas is one of an increasing number of Americans, both individuals and families, who are taking vacations with purpose. Instead of looking for entertainment, they look for opportunities to serve, and usually end up being beneficiaries themselves.

"I almost feel selfish to go because I feel so good," Thomas said. "They (Haitians) have no idea how good they make us feel."

Other types of vacation-volunteer opportunities include helping to build homes with Habitat for Humanity, counseling AIDS victims in Africa, teaching English in China or serving at orphanages in Latin America.

Short-term missions trips continue to grow in popularity among Christians, according to a Feb. 8 story by The Christian Post. Wycliffe Associates, a support organization for Bible translators, said that about 1.6 million Christians annually contribute about $6 billion worth of labor through such efforts.

"I think people have a desire to not just go on a vacation like you have every year in the past, but to do something that will be life-changing," said Amber Van Schooneveld, author of "Hope Lives" and a consultant for Compassion International.

Besides helping others, going on such vacations can teach individuals and families about poverty, Van Schooneveld said.

She said that Habitat for Humanity is an easy way to start taking purposeful vacations since it works throughout the U.S. and because volunteering for a project doesn’t take a lot of advance planning.

Foreign travel, though, does: vaccinations, passports, visa applications.

And, Van Schooneveld said, don’t forget to study the culture and language.

"It’s a respect of that culture to know a little more about it when you show up," she said.

She suggested that people look for a program that involves something they are "passionate about."

"Think through what ways you want to serve in most," Van Schooneveld said.

For someone like Thomas, that choice was obvious, especially after co-workers began returning from trips to Haiti and bragging about how refreshed and revitalized they were.

"They would brag on what they got to do over there," Thomas said. "It’s such a good way to use our skills."

It’s also possible to combine service and tourism. Global Crossroad, for instance, can line you up with volunteer opportunities in nations around the world, find inexpensive lodging with local hosts and set you up with tours that take place apart from the work.

Mohan Adkiri, director of the for-profit organization, said that since 2002 his Texas-based business has sent 8,000 people around the world to work for at least 25 hours each. For instance, more than 30 houses were built through Global Crossroad in Sri Lanka following the 2004 tsunami in that region.

He also said that 35 percent of each trip fee goes toward funding for the project being visited.

Some costs of service trips like FOTCOH’s to Haiti — they’re running about $1,300 now, all expenses included — are tax deductible, Thomas said, but that’s not the best reason to go.

"You just can’t put a price or amount of time on what you get back," she said. "Even though we work very, very, very hard, it’s a different working atmosphere. It’s not the pressures of the phone and the faxes and demanding people. It’s the little things that mean so much to these people."

MICHAEL MILLER covers religion for the Journal Star. Write to him in care of the Journal Star, 1 News Plaza, Peoria, IL 61643, call him at 686-3106, or send e-mail to Comments may be published.