Volunteering on Vacation Can Change Your Life

Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans on August 29, 2005.  Having grown up in Florida, I’ve seen my share of Hurricanes and hurricane damage.  But this was different.  I had never seen anything like what was happening in New Orleans.  On August 27, 2006, almost one year to the day that Katrina hit New Orleans, a group of friends and I headed down to New Orleans.

Hotels were offering unheard of rates – we stayed at the Renaissance New Orleans Pere Marquette for $79/night.  When we arrived, we immediately saw that nothing was on the first floor of the hotel  – it was completely empty.  Everything had been moved to higher floors.  Check-in was on the third floor in an area that I think had been convention or meeting space.  A bar and restaurant were open on that floor as well.

We had pre-arranged to volunteer at the Aubrey Hepburn Children’s Advocacy Center part of the Children’s Hospital of New Orleans.  The Center treated children who had been victims of sexual abuse and was a one-of-a-kind facility.  The center had suffered in the year following the hurricane.   It looked like time had stood still.  The trees and bushes had overgrown and taken over all the flower beds. Screens were torn and ripped still.  It was not a welcoming place for abused children.

We spent a long weekend cutting down branches, moving dirt, cutting back foliage and planting new flowers and plants to help make the center more welcoming for children and their families.

Audrey Hepburn Child Advocacy Center Day 1

Before the trip, we spent a lot of time asking our friends and colleagues to make donations – and boy, did they ever.  We had a lot of money with us to be used at Home Depot.   The city felt like it was deserted.  There were abandoned cars everywhere and thousands of trailers in front of houses.   We spent hours in the heat of August rebuilding as much as we could.

Cleaning Up



During our trip, we learned a lot about ourselves and cemented friendships that to this day have not wavered.  The experience was one that no one has forgotten.  I remember it like it was yesterday and yet we were there 6 years ago this month.  A few of the things that impacted me profoundly was the gratitude of the people still living and working in the area.  Everyone was suffering a year after the storm and they were positive and trying to move forward.

During the cleanup, we took a trip to Home Depot.  When we arrived at Home Depot near the Tulane campus we saw police cars and police tape around the store.  We learned that there had been an attempted murder at the gas station next door and the victim had run into Home Depot for help.  I think she later died.  It was a surreal scene.  A horrible crime had taken place, no one seemed to care and people kept shopping at Home Depot like nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.

You could still see the evidence of the storm everywhere and it was our job to fix one small piece of the world.  We felt like we accomplished a lot and the center looked like a different place when we were done.



Almost done

After volunteering at the center, we spent several hours driving around the city.  For the majority of the car ride, we sat in silence. Even though I felt like I had made a huge difference for the Child Advocacy Center, I felt like there was so much more that needed to be done.  I couldn’t believe that things had sat untouched for a whole year.

Here are some photos from our drive:

Water Line On House

Tree On House

I can't even describe the smells that came from this house

Sally Beauty Supply Store with broken out windows a year later - this was in walking distance from our hotel

Gutted Apartments

Abandoned Car

Abandoned Car


Trailer in front of house

Abandoned House

What I gained from this experience?  I learned a whole lot about myself and how lucky I am.  I also discovered how rewarding volunteering on a trip can be.  You get to make an impact on a part of the country or world where you’re visiting.  During this trip I also formed bonds and fostered friendships with people that will absolutely last a lifetime.  Six year’s later, I’m still friends with both of the people I volunteered with, but one of the two people is one of my best friends and someone I would trust my life with.

Another thing that I decided after this trip was that I would volunteer on vacation again. And I did just that after the Tsunami the leveled some of the Thailand Islands.  I went to Phuket and Khao Lak exactly 2 years after the Tsunami. In December of 2005 just months after volunteering in New Orleans, I went to Thailand for holiday.  There was still evidence of the Tsunami, but what surprised me most, was how much progress had been made compared to New Orleans.

I decided while in Thailand to help a local school.  I bought a ton of school supplies to donate and made a small cash donation.  Since there were children around, I was not aloud to take photos.  The building had been rebuilt and while it needed a lot of books and supplies, structurally you wouldn’t have known there had been a tsunami.

I did take some other photos and was generously given some photos of one of the hotels I stayed in by a member of the staff.  One of the things that did change for me on this trip was my desire to bargain with the locals. Traditionally in Thailand you can negotiate with most local store owners and craftsman.  However, having seen what the country was dealing with I didn’t – and still don’t – feel the need to barter to save a few dollars.

This boat was turned into a Tsunami Memorial

Damaged Building

Le Meridien Khao Lak after the Tsunami Pool and Fountain Area- Courtesy: LM Khao Lak Staff member

Le Meridien Khao Lak after the Tsunami - Courtesy LM Khao Lak Staff Member

Le Meridien Khao Lak Villa post tsunami - Courtesy LM Khao Lak Staff member

Renovated Pool Villa

Renovated Lobby Area

Renovated Pool Area

When I was in Fiji this past year, I was very surprised by the level of poverty among the locals.  As little money as they made, and as little as they had, everyone was happy.  I met many locals who told me over and over again that they didn’t equate happiness and self-satisfaction with possessions or money.  I tried extremely hard to find an volunteer opportunity, but was unsuccessful.   Instead, I arranged through the hotel GM to make a donation to a local family for their Christmas dinner celebration.  Even though it wasn’t a true volunteer experience, it felt rewarding to help a family during the holidays.

I have several friends who have been to Haiti after the earthquake to help schools and orphanages and they also found it very rewarding.  I am already planning volunteer experiences for this December!  I really do think differently about the world having spent time volunteering in the communities I visit.  Have you ever volunteered during your vacation?   What have you done?

10 Comments on "Volunteering on Vacation Can Change Your Life"

  1. Excellent post. I return to MD tomorrow after a weekend in Costa Rica where we visited the Sloth Sanctuary & Tree of Life near Cahuita. Since shipping here is crazy expensive, we just brought needed supplies with us like gauze, pencils, heating pads, etc in an extra carry on (like the reusable grocery bags that fold flat for the return trip).

  2. I haven’t, but your post gives me some inspiring ideas to think about and really consider how thankful I am for the blessings of being able to travel and enjoy life!

  3. BOShappyflyer | August 19, 2012 at 7:14 pm |

    Not yet. I actually used to volunteer a lot in high school and college. Sadly, I haven’t as of late, so I’m going to try to look out for opportunities of interests where I can help. Nice reminder of a post…thanks!

  4. Thanks for the post.

    A few years ago I was on a military humanitarian mission to Swaziland. One morning while in uniform I was eating breakfast at our hotel (think 1970s Holiday Inn style) and I heard someone behind me say “I don’t know what you are doing here, but thank you.” I turns out this lady was an empty nester from SEA who decided the best thing to do with the rest of her life was to make periodic trips to an orphanage in that country. She flies down 2-3 times a year to teach the older kids how to use a computer and helps them with their homework. She just “loves on” the babies and toddlers. She carries two suitcases full of toys/school supplies with her on each trip. I was deeply moved.

    So my question, I am going to The LM Khao Lak later in the year, can you point me in the direction of the school you helped? If so pleas email me the name. I would love to take them some supplies.

    Many thanks,

  5. Just came back from fiji where i visited a local primary school on the island of venua levu – they did not have very many school supplies and were very much in need of books, pencils, school supplies and medical supplies. the kids were very poor and their clothes looked unwashed and worn, but they were all very happy and welcomed us and sang for us. we left some supplies, candy, toothbrushes and hopefully will be back to bring more in the near future. a beautiful experience.

  6. Thanks for the post. It is saddening to see these devastating scenes again in this blog. This is thepart we have been trying to forget. It has taken many lives of our community, families and friends. Visitors, alway eager to find out how and what has happened during that day and after, but I always kept silent, as I think it is not necessary to reveal the pain again after we have all went throught it and we hope it will fade by times.

    I appreciate your good intension to help our community.

  7. Thanks for your inspirational post…It is definitely making me think.

  8. I went to Long Beach, MS the week after Katrina and spent the next three weeks working at a medical, food and clothing site. 150 of us slept on cots in a school gym missing much of its roof and siding, and the doctors worked in an open tent. We saw a great deal of raw courage and equal amounts of suffering, and the experience stays with me to this day.

  9. Volunteering outside of my regular activities at home has provided for some wonderful experience…Thailand post Tsunami with Habitat provided closure for me as a SE Asia Tsunami Survivor, NOLA post Katrina for Green Recycling allowed me to focus on building material reuse; China for English as a Second Language at a Foster Home focused on children with brittle bone disease allowed me to give back to a program with close ties to my greater family. Next, we are off to Chile where we are looking into a couple of opportunities. Any suggestions for Santiago or Easter island?

  10. Stacey, I’ll never forget those days in NOLA – it was an inspiring, memorable and amazing experience. There is nothing more rewarding than volunteering, and how great to turn it into a vacation! Thanks for organizing the trip, and I look forward to our next one.

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