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The Useful Vacation

Volunteer Vacations Can Be The Most Memorable

Our vacation time is valuable, especially since many of us have as little as a week's worth each year. Why not make this short time a memorable one? You can lie in the sun and gain 10 pounds any time, but what about doing something good for the soul? Like spending your vacation as a volunteer?

Think of your interests, or places you want to go. Look at the volunteer listings on Transitions Abroad's website: You can teach English in Thailand, track elephants in Africa, or build houses in Nepal. My mother told me stories about the Spanish Gypsies that sparked a life-long interest in their culture. I went to Macedonia for six months to teach English and computer skills in a Gypsy village through an organization called Balkan Sunflowers, www.balkansunflowers.org. I learned the language, studied the culture, and had a chance to try and give something back.

How much time should you give? It's best if you can spend three weeks to a month to really benefit from the experience. It takes time to get involved. But if you don't have the luxury of a long vacation there are worthwhile short-term projects of two weeks or even less. There may be an option of continuing something close to home after your vacation is over.

Being confronted with the brutal side of poverty can be overwhelming. Volunteering is definitely not a Ritz Carlton vacation, and if you absolutely can't do without your hair dryer, then this is not an option for you. Expect to live at the local standards. This could mean no running water, or sleeping with eight other people on the floor. Expect feelings of guilt, shock, depression, but don't let these feelings overwhelm you. Remember, you can't change their lives in two weeks or even two years, but you can contribute a little, even if it is only making someone feel that another person cares.

The French have an expression for this kind of vacation, "Le Voyage Utile" (the useful vacation). It can give you the chance to discover a side of yourself and the world that you never knew existed. Volunteering can forever plant the seed of empathy in your heart which can grow into a lifetime of compassion for others.

MELISSA SHULZ is an American living in France and quickly becoming an expert on French beaurocracy.

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