Love on the Fly: Volunteer Vacations

Love on the Fly: Volunteer Vacations

If you’ve had your fill of moonlit beach walks and peach-colored drinks, try something altogether different. I recently spoke with several couples whose idea of a passionate vacation involved less hand-holding and more giving a hand: they spent their vacation time volunteering.

Jamie Cann and his wife, Mary, returned recently from a trip to Tanzania. Jamie spent his days in a home for orphans and vulnerable children, teaching English and playing soccer with the kids. Mary taught English and math at a nearby primary school. “It was an incredible experience for us to share,” says Jamie of the trip they booked through Cross-Cultural Solutions , an organization that matches would-be volunteers with teaching, health-care and community development projects in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. “To do something like this, to share such an important, meaningful, experience has strengthened our relationship.”

For Karen and Michael Crisafulli, the feeling is mutual: the pair actually met on a volunteer vacation in 1993 in Saragosa, Spain, where they helped with an archaeological study of farming societies in the area. Their trip was arranged by the EarthWatch Institute, a scientific research and education group focused on the environment. The Crisafullis have taken an EarthWatch trip every year since they met — Karen’s favorite vacation to date was to Tuscany, where the couple spent two weeks restoring ancient fountains and tabernacles — though not every expedition has been taken together. “One year, he wanted to go to Belize in the middle of summer,” says Karen. “The more we shopped for mosquito repellent and rain gear, the less I felt I could do it.” Instead, she went off to the wilds of Virginia for an “interdisciplinary study on animals in the woods.”

There is indeed a volunteer vacation for every persuasion. Depending on your particular passions, preferences and areas of expertise, you can go to Thailand to help rebuild ocean reefs damaged by the tsunami, or to New Orleans to rebuild houses. For the highly skilled there is a universe of choice — dentists and doctors are in demand all over the globe — but anyone can help schoolchildren learn math or gather rare plants in the Amazon as part of a conservation effort. And one need not be a saint to truly enjoy a volunteer vacation. The couples I interviewed said that one of the most rewarding things about volunteering was simply being immersed in an entirely different culture — something that might be said of every great journey. As for cost, although volunteer trips aren’t exactly cheap, they may be tax-deductible, depending on the individual organization.

The payoff for couples can also be great: doing good on your time off can inspire a whole lot of love, if not exactly the traditional kind. I asked Karen Crisafulli, a 62-year-old retired schoolteacher, delicately, if there were any opportunities for romance on volunteer vacations. “No. I can say that unequivocally,” she laughed.

But they breed a sense of togetherness that you might not have gotten otherwise. “I wouldn’t characterize our trip as romantic. We’ve done romantic vacations, and this was not, but at the same time, it was better,” says Jamie Cann. Also, many couples choose to volunteer in the same town, but work on separate projects — because communities and couples have different needs and talents — which they say makes you better appreciate your partner at the end of the day. Dava Antoniotti, who started working at Cross-Cultural Solutions after she and her partner, Kristin Lukasik, returned from a CCS-arranged trip to Peru, says the pair’s recent stint in Morocco was the ideal balance of volunteering and couple-time. “I was working with special needs children. Kristin was working at a school,” Antoniotti says. “Even though we were apart for four hours a day, we were together the rest of the time — which is fine because you don’t want to overdo it,” she laughs.

Joe Grant, 25, and his then girlfriend, now wife, Deanne, went the opposite route, spending six months together in the Masai Mara in Kenya building schools with Free the Children, an international organization whose goal is making primary education accessible for children everywhere. “I think the biggest challenge was just dealing with the suffering that some of the local community went through,” says Joe. “It was hard to see the reality of really young kids dying of diarrhea.”

But “it was a beautiful setting, beautiful people. Once you pass the hurdles of getting sick — and the scary snakes — it was really pretty great,” he says.

Even though volunteer vacations don’t leave much room for candles and flowers, says Antoniotti, they have been rejuvenating for her relationship. “Not that a typical vacation isn’t fun, but if it’s really easy, you don’t have those experiences that stretch you,” she says. “It’s like in exercise how they say tiny tears in your muscles allow you to get stronger. Little things that take you outside of your comfort zone challenge you as a couple and make you stronger.”