USAToday: Finding the Right Volunteer Vacation

Anne Wallace Allen, a reporter with The Associated Press, considers the motivating factors that leads Americans to take volunteer vacations. Allen considers the life and professional experience of a number of volunteer vacationers and how these individuals want more out of a vacation – and life – than a standard day on the beach and an extended period of downtime.  Allen also spoke with Globe Aware client Pam Solon who explains she selected Globe Aware “because it was nondenominational; offered destinations the family wanted; accommodated kids; and was the right price.”

How to find the right volunteer vacation

By Anne Wallace Allen, For The Associated Press

Kathy Boisvert, who teaches preschoolers with special needs near her home in Massachusetts, had never been overseas before she signed up with World Teach, a nonprofit organization that matches volunteer teachers with overseas assignments.

Now Boisvert is spending her third summer at a tiny school in a small community an hour northeast of Cape Town, through World Teach. Volunteering at the school for children with disabilities gives her a way to travel and enriches her life when she gets back home.

“Going on a vacation is fun, but I’m not somebody who wants to sit; I won’t lie on the beach,” said Boisvert, of Uxbridge, Mass. “I like being busy.”

Volunteer vacations are a way for travelers to see an area, especially in the developing world, and to get to know its people in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, for tourists. They also give travelers a way to help with problems they might not see in closer to home. And for kids, they provide some perspective, said Mark Solon of Boise, who is volunteering in Cambodia and Ghana this summer with his wife Pam and their two kids, ages 10 and 11.

“American kids need a better dose of perspective about how fortunate they are,” said Solon. “Our job as parents is to produce two kids that contribute to society. So we think this is just part of their education.”

Boisvert, who has a doctorate, teaches an extra class at the University of Massachusetts during the school year to pay for her airfare and lodging.

“It’s really an investment,” said Boisvert. “It has changed my point of view. In this community in South Africa they’re doing the best they can with the little they have, so here, I think I can do so much more. The resources are here; it’s not catastrophic like it was there.”

Volunteer abroad programs can charge thousands of dollars a week for the privilege of helping out, not including airfare. The money goes to administration, lodging, food, and often to the community organizations that are working with the volunteers.

Fees charged by World Teach range from $1,000 to teach in Columbia or China, to almost $6,000 for Rwanda, Tanzania, or Namibia, including airfare. The organization offers year-long and summer-long programs.

“The airfare tends to be a very large percentage of the program cost,” said Maki Park, the outreach director at World Teach.

With so many options for volunteering abroad, it’s difficult to figure out which programs are legitimate ' and which ones really do help people in the local communities they serve, for example ' and which are just costly vacations with a veneer of volunteerism.

Boisvert chose World Teach because it’s part of Harvard University’s Center for International Development, a name that she trusted would ensure the program’s legitimacy. She likes World Teach because volunteers can choose where they want to go based on their own interests. She also looked at the Peace Corps, which doesn’t cost volunteers anything, but which requires a two-year commitment and sends the volunteer to a site chosen by the Peace Corps, not by the volunteer.

Pam Solon reviewed dozens of websites, talked to other families who had volunteered abroad, and read Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, Anne Geissinger and Ed Asner. She chose GlobeAware,, because it was nondenominational; offered destinations the family wanted; accommodated kids; and was the right price.

But there are many other online options for finding volunteer opportunities abroad.

VAOPS, which stands for Volunteer Abroad Opportunities '' helps would-be volunteers find free and low-cost trips. Site founder Russell Gagnebin says he created the site after spending hours searching for a volunteer opportunity for himself and realizing that fees paid by volunteers don’t always benefit the charities they work with. Many of the VAOPS listings are designed to connect volunteers directly with the charities, rather than having the trip organized by a middleman.

Gagnebin says that one of his favorite volunteer programs is The Light in Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Peru where volunteers can teach, help kids with their homework, and carry out building projects. Room and board is about $300 a month; information about contacting the group is on the VAOPS site along with many others.

The University of Minnesota Learning Abroad Center '' has a wealth of information for would-be volunteers, including a list of high-quality programs that UMN has worked with in the past. The site also offers sample questions that can help you learn if a program is legitimate and a good fit.

“Every program sounds wonderful, but if you talk to an actual past participant and ask the right questions you can get some meaningful answers,” said Scott Daby, a program director at the Learning Abroad Center. “Ask how the project helped the community, how much money goes into the community, that kind of thing.”

The International Volunteer Program Association at also offers guidance on choosing the right program, including a list of best practices.

New York Filmmaker, Volunteer Vacationer Celebrates Film Premiere

Julie Tortorici, a Glen Cove native, celebrated the Long Island premiere of her new film at the Long Island International Film Expo on July 14. Julie wrote and directed Milestone, making it her first film as director. This short film has been accepted to film festivals worldwide, including the New York Downtown Short Film Festival and Los Angeles Women' s International Film Festival. Julie is also a Globe Aware client who recently travelled to Ghana and documented her remarkable experience in “Best Laid Plans”, a film that questions what a person does when their life plan throws a curve ball at them.  Julie was recently profiled in a Long Island, New York newspaper, in the lead up to the premiere of
Milestone, her first film as director:

Glen Cove' s Julie Tortorici Celebrates LI Film Premiere

Milestone is a short comedy about what happens when tubs of ice cream and sad movies don' t get you past your heartbreak – a plot that many people can relate to. In the film, the friends of the heartbroken woman try to help with her break-up. Julie said that she likes to write from her own experience, sharing, "I think its true, write what you know. I take my experiences and twist them around non-fiction to fiction if you will." Inspiration for Milestone, therefore came from the support she gets from those around her, as she stated, "I have a great group of friends around me, my family is amazing."

Directing is just one of Julie' s many talents. She is an actor, writer and producer at On the Leesh Productions, a New York City company that creates film, theater and Web series. Alica Arinella, CEO and president of On the Leesh Productions has been a mentor as well as great friend for Julie, saying, "I can' t say enough great things about her."

One of Julie' s most recent projects, in which she served as producer as well as writer was What can You do 365. Created by Jessica Arinella, this series offers people ideas to combat major world issues such as global warming, domestic violence and hunger even if they only can give one minute of time. Julie, is a co- head writer, which gives her the ability to really "sink her teeth into a series that is both online and premiered on television" as it was shown on PBS affiliate WLIW. "It' s been really fun…I like to say we' re starting a one minute movement" said Julie.

Another major project in her life right now is her feature film, For Belly, which is currently in post-production. For Belly is based on her one woman show that she created right after college and now has been adapted into her first feature film. She produced, wrote and starred in this emotional drama that focuses on a woman suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder. "Adapting a one-woman show into a screen play was another sort of adventure for me," said Julie. Alicia Arinella and Matthew Rashid directed this film. It is a cast of three, with Jessica Arinella, Mary Micari and of course, Julie herself. Julie hopes that it will be finished by late summer!

 Among the many projects that Julie has done, she also found time for a volunteer vacation in Ghana, with an organization called Globe Aware. "I wanted to go away, and I knew I' d be going by myself. I always wanted to go to Africa," she said. This organization gave busy people the opportunity to volunteer in a country for about a week. The thought of bringing a camera ran through Julie' s mind before she went, and of course she brought one, saying, "I went from going on a vacation to all of a sudden doing a documentary." This documentary that began in Ghana suddenly was the beginning of her project, Best Laid Plans, a film that questions what a person does when their life plan throws a curve ball at them.

Julie is currently in the midst of writing a novel called The Break Up. When asked how writing a novel compares to doing a film script she explained how different it was. "A movie is all about dialogue where a novel, you' re really painting the picture." Julie' s father is a writer, primarily a novelist, and has been a great guide for her throughout this new project. The novel is not finished yet but she hopes that it will be published in the near feature. "It' s been very different but really fun," said Julie about her writing experience.

Julie has had a great experience growing up in Glen Cove, saying, "It' s a rich place in a number of ways." As a student at Glen Cove High School, in the class of 1993, she participated in the school' s Masquers drama program. Dale Zurbrick, Julie' s choir teacher and Sally Zweibach, an English and acting teacher, both had a tremendous impact on Julie during her years at GCHS. She said both were extremely supportive and were terrific influences on her in the pursuit of her passions.

She attended Rutgers University, where she studied film and majored in political science. "The wonderful thing about the arts is that if you' re interested in something, you' re finding your own creative process, you really can kind of learn as you go," said Julie. "I think in studying any kind of craft, there are things you need to learn. I think that those things you can learn in the field." When speaking about her experience with a camera, she said that at first, she did not use the camera herself, however "Alicia has taught me the camera, now I' m comfortable with it," proving what she was able to learn without studying in school.

Julie said that she is blessed because of the great support she receives from her family. Her parents have always been there for her, believing in her every step. She also finds comfort from her older sister, also a writer, who lives with her family in Oakland.

"I' m a movie lover," said Julie. "I think if you' re interested in any kind of artistic medium, there is a way you can do it, even if it means it' s not your full-time job. I think it' s a wonderful outlet."

Julie has many high hopes for her future: "I hope to reach whatever the next place for me to reach is. All of these projects are in different states, I' m just excited for them to come out into the world."