Volunteer on Vacation 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.

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.

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 14 years ago.  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.

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.

What I gained from this experience?  I learned a whole lot about myself and how lucky I am.  I also discovered how rewarding it can be to volunteer on vacation.  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.  Fourteen year’s later and I’m still friends with both of the people I volunteered with, and 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 that leveled some of the Thai 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 how little had been made in 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 asked not 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 a year ago.

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 that don’t really impact my lifestyle. Two dollars to me is nothing  but to an orphan or a single mother, it means food for a day in Thailand.

When I was in Fiji, 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 seemed 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 a volunteer opportunity, but was unsuccessful – sometimes you need to plan in advance.   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 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?

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