Should you decide to spend your next international vacation ‘giving back’ or helping others, it will change not only someone else’s life, but also YOUR life.

My personal journey into international volunteerism started 10 years ago as a ‘Trip of a Lifetime.’ I celebrated my friend’s 50th birthday by joining her on an adventure with Habitat for Humanity to build a house for a deserving family in Botswana, Africa. After that trip to Botswana, I quickly became ‘Hooked on Habitat’ and, yes, I believe I am now addicted to this type of vacation.

On the surface it looks like an international volunteer is making a grand gesture of selflessness – giving up valuable time and hard-earned money to help others. Those of us lucky enough to have done one or multiple trips of this kind know the real truth: The volunteer benefits even MORE than the recipient. The volunteer gains SO much personally… it is hardly an altruistic act.

As an aside, in my opinion the true selfless volunteer is someone who quietly donates her time. My mother, for instance, has volunteered at her local Hospice Thrift Store almost every single Tuesday for over 25 years. THAT is true selflessness. People like my mother are the quiet heroes who often go unnoticed… but that is a story for another time.

Of course, the main goal of ANY international non-profit of this type is to give aid to people in countries that lack some of the basic necessities of life. How it changes the life of a volunteer forever is just an added bonus.

New friendships and special bonds are made on these trips among fellow volunteers and local affiliate workers. The most important friendships, however, are often with the deserving family receiving the help of the team. An important part of every build is this cultural exchange. Quite often the only impression the locals in these rural areas have of Americans (prior to our arrival) is from TV sitcoms and news. We do our best to show them our kinder, gentler, more generous, hardworking side. Volunteering is not part of many cultures. Therefore, we do our best to show how this can benefit everyone and how we can all have fun at the same time. In return, they always welcome us with open arms and open hearts. Additionally, if we are lucky, we are also greeted with a memorable arrival ceremony from the entire community that often includes singing, dancing and prayers of thanks – always a welcome to remember.

For a week, we are then thoroughly immersed in their culture, in their homes and in the intricacies of their lives. We see first-hand their daily struggles, their worries and what makes them happy. They are almost all driven to serve the wellbeing and futures of their children. We see them rooted in building a strong community. We see that many children have never gone to school or stopped going at a young age in order to help the family. We see Guatemalan children standing barefoot by kitchen wood fires making tortillas for hours every day, inhaling dangerous fumes. We see the machete as a standard household tool, used for everything (cutting bricks, firewood and coconuts) and by everyone (even toddlers!). We see young African girls (often carrying a younger sibling on their back) walking miles every morning to get fresh water for the family (carried in large containers on their heads). We see hungry children gather around the fire pit when the morning meal is served, eagerly awaiting their portion of rice, beans or tortillas. We see these same children then playing happily for hours with makeshift toy cars (from old Coke cans) or kicking around a partially deflated soccer ball. We see the patriarch of a family leave every day to collect firewood with a bad leg then arrive many hours later with an enormous bundle of wood on his back.

Upon his return, I ask this particular homeowner if I can take a photo of him and his wife. He obliges, but not before he goes into his old adobe house to find his ‘good hat’ for the photo. We see a young homeowner (Roru, who now lives in his new 2-room house with 14 others) working his tail off with us, joking and laughing with us, and on the final day as we say goodbye, he cries with us. A memory I will cherish forever is Roru running after our van, waving goodbye as we drove away down the dirt road in Botswana. Although there wasn’t a dry eye in the van, our hearts were content. We knew Roru’s family (who had been living in a temporary hut made from our building supplies) would now have a proper cement block home – just days before the rain and cold arrived.

In addition to Habitat builds, I have recently found another worthy organization that I highly recommend, for ANYbody, but especially for those with any medical experience. It is called HELPS International and they do work only in Guatemala, a beautiful country that is desperately in need of help and is very near and dear to my heart. HELPS is primarily free medical clinics/surgeries, set up ‘M.A.S.H.’ style in different locations around Guatemala. I recently completed a week with the HELPS team from Michigan. In one week’s time, we (120 volunteers) saw 1200 patients in the clinic and performed 180 surgeries, and my (non-medical) group built 42 smokeless stoves in nearby homes. It truly was a remarkable week in which I am honored and lucky to have been part of the team.

At the end of any trip (especially from a third world country), as team leader, I always prepare the team for ‘re-entry’ back into ‘real life’ – not as easy as it sounds. Every detail of life back home is now different. Things we took for granted are now viewed in a new light and appreciated like never before…running water, electricity, above-ground toilets, putting toilet paper IN the toilet (instead of in a bin), transportation, non-dirt floors… a roof over our heads. We appreciate the little things in life and listen to the world news with a new perspective. We return with enthusiasm to continue to make a difference and to spread the word.

There are many reputable international non-profits bringing about positive change in the world, but if you decide to explore a vacation option, I recommend you choose the option that focuses on the issues that are meaningful to YOU. If education or sustainable living are important to you, find a trip that addresses these. I have been mostly concentrating on housing solutions. I agree with Habitat’s vision of ‘A world where everyone has a decent place to live.’ I also choose this type of trip because, personally, it feeds my soul. We get to know a family, a culture, from the inside out – almost impossible for the average traveler or volunteer.

There’s nothing like it.

The international volunteer experience will open your eyes, reboot your priorities and restore a bit of hope. With each new friendship made, each global connection, you will help bring the world a little closer….one stove, one latrine, one house…one friendship at a time.”