New family traditions through volunteer vacations

Now here' s a unique twist on a family holiday. Writer Wendy Donahue in the Chicago Tribune suggests integrating and incorporating annual traditions into a truly memorable and possibly life-changing event:

Happy faux-lidays

Extended families create their own reason to celebrate each other

By Wendy Donahue, Tribune Newspapers

3:13 PM CST, March 6, 2012

Every year, Marie Puskas and her extended family put all of their eggs in one basket ' along with their Valentines, New Year’s noisemakers, Christmas gifts, Thanksgiving fixings and Halloween treats.

Naturally, they call this annual family gathering “New Valeastweengivingmas,” a contraction of several holidays, and it is celebrated in July or August at her parents’ house in Daytona Beach, Fla.

“We count down to midnight, give valentines in Easter eggs, dress up in Halloween costumes, have a Thanksgiving dinner and have a secret Santa/white elephant gift exchange,” said Puskas, who lives in Tampa.

Just over a dozen family members, along with some family friends, travel from across Florida for this off-peak holiday rush, which dates to 2003.

“We weren’t sure if we’d all be able to get together once we all had families,” Puskas said, “so this is one tradition we make sure stays intact.”

Modern family life has birthed a brood of custom holidays, often to preserve closeness while easing logistical and financial pressures on extended, blended and interfaith families separated by miles. Sometimes they honor sacred milestones (the date of a child’s adoption, often called “gotcha day”). Sometimes, they’re whimsical (the date a boat goes in the water after winter, christened “Cold Duck Day” by one family because the “really cheap” wine was all they had aboard to toast the launch the first year).

A venerable holiday twist for extended families involves shifting the celebration of Christmas to a few weeks before or a few days after Dec. 25 ' which one family christened “Mockmas” ' in part so that individual families can wake up on Christmas Day in their own homes. On the opposite end of the calendar is the old-fashioned family reunion in summertime when kids don’t have school and travel conditions are more hospitable.

Even somber events can spin off annual celebrations. The family of Melissa Byers of Myrtle Beach, S.C., marks the date of her father’s death.

“I know that sounds weird, but we go to his favorite restaurant, make his favorite dessert, etc.,” Byers said. “We’re on year three in March and the first two were festive, not sad. No balloons or anything, but time that we deliberately remember and enjoy the things he did. It’s nice.”

Birth of a complicated schedule

But, as Puskas said, it’s the birth of babies that most universally redefines holidays for families.

“It’s a time of complete reinvention in some ways,” said Linda Murray, editor in chief of Its recent poll found that 23 percent of respondents stayed closer to home after having a baby, with 44 percent describing the traditional holiday season in their home as “a reasonably low-key event with just a few gatherings and a handful of relatives. Fourteen percent described theirs as a “quiet event at home with just our immediate family.”

Many new parents report that they initially travel more than they did before, introducing the baby to relatives. Once a child turns 2, constantly on the go and requiring a separate plane ticket, air travel declines, Murray said. Then the school years start, with new financial demands, hectic schedules and limited breaks.

But Murray cited a surprise in the poll: 92 percent of parents will pull their children out of school to travel with them “and not feel guilty about it.”

She speculates that might be feeding alternative-holiday momentum.

It’s a big world out there

“Parents tell us they have a real belief in life experience,” Murray said. “The opportunity to see another place or learn something new or bond together as a family, they really value those things on par with traditional education.”

That’s why some families have turned volunteerism vacations into annual holidays.

Through the Globe Aware ( organization, Mark Edwards and his family have assembled desks for a school in Ghana, painted a school in Laos and built stoves in Peru. That was their first trip when their youngest of three daughters was 9 and their unheated hostel meant sleeping in all of their clothes to stay warm.

“But our kids never complained,” said Edwards, who lives in Boston. “They loved it, we loved it, and we were hooked.”

Globe Aware, which is one of the partners on, reports that about 40 percent of families turn its trips into an annual rite, though families make up only 15 to 25 percent of its volunteers.

“We’ve seen many multigenerational families ' kids, together with their parents and grandparents ' all traveling with one another as a bonding experience in a truly unique and wonderful environment,” said Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive director of Globe Aware.

Friendship matters

Other faux-lidays aren’t just centered on the traditional definition of family. Some surround friendship.

“Two of my good friends have birthdays three days apart from each other,” said Jenny Des Jarlais, who lives in northern California. “They’re the same age for just those three days out of the year. They consider it a three-day period of celebration.”

Celebrations of half-birthdays have become commonplace for kids whose birthdays are lost in the December or summer shuffle, as with Murray’s daughter, who was born on New Year’s Eve. Murray points out a related post on

“My sister’s and my birthdays fell at inconvenient times (hers is Dec. 21, mine Jan. 4), so rather than let them get overlooked or run together with Christmas, my family would throw us a joint ‘unbirthday party’ some time when everybody could come. And we’d usually watch ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ where the Mad Hatter explains that everybody gets 364 unbirthdays a year.”

A new holiday dawning

Thinking about proposing a new holiday for your extended family? For 64 years, relatives of Jessica Hebenstreit have gathered for the Benz Family Reunion at Rathbun Lake in Iowa. Here are five ways they started and sustained the tradition.

Agree on a day that remains clear year after year, such as “the second Sunday of July.” Once there’s reasonable consensus, stick to it to avoid confusion.

Make the official celebration a single-day event, then individual families can tailor their trip to their liking. Hebenstreit’s relatives start trickling in as much as a week in advance.

Pick a destination with some affordable recreational options. They don’t have to be highfalutin. “People go boating on the lake, spend time in town; generally, the adults find their way to the local pool hall,” Hebenstreit says.

Schedule some events, but not too many. A little bit of “corny” is OK too ' it’s family. “On Saturday we have a weenie roast at the campgrounds,” Hebenstreit says. “Sunday entails a potluck, a family report given by a member of each of the families on the past year, prayer, singing of songs, games for the children.”

Tend to business for the next year while everyone is there. On Sunday, Hebenstreit says her family passes a hat to raise money to reserve the shelters for the next year as well as to make a donation to the cemetery where their forebears, Charles and Anna Benz, are buried. They also elect a president and vice president who are responsible for booking the shelters and ensuring the reunion takes place the next year.

Voluteer Vacations Embraced by Celebrities and Enthusiasts Alike

People may think that being famous means only five-star hotels, private jets, and personal chefs. Looking to lend a helping hand, many switch these out for mud huts, bamboo rafts, and a good Sherpa. Which celebrities can be found on location getting their hands dirty? From animal conservation to work with the poverty stricken, there might not be a red carpet at these volunteer events, but the rewards are just as great. 

Star quality isn' t just reserved for the rich and famous. GoVoluntouring helps travelers of all kinds connect with their ideal volunteer vacation in locations across the world, including those that the celebs hold dear to their hearts:

Angelina Jolie fights poverty in Cambodia

This Oscar-winning actress who often graces the "most beautiful woman" list can be found in Cambodia. Whilst filming Tomb Raider, Jolie was touched by the plight of the poor and impoverished. See for yourself the source of Jolie' s inspiration with Globe Aware' s Cambodia Rediscovered program. Even though the tourism trade is blossoming in Cambodia, a large percentage of people still live in poverty. With a street-child problem and an underfunded education and medical system, volunteers will be working on a variety of projects. However, they will still have time however to visit the ancient temples that feature in Jolie' s Tomb Raider movies.

Natalie Portman loves them big and hairy

From black swans to mountain gorillas, Natalie Portman trekked into the rainforests of Rwanda to raise awareness of these beautiful giants. Gorillas share 98% of their genetic make-up with humans and volunteers can get involved with their plight by joining the Peaks Foundation. The organization runs a one-week trip where volunteers climb Rwanda' s highest peak, Nyiragongo (an active volcano), in support of the conservation efforts at Virunga National Park.

Elton John turns tragedy to triumph

St. Lucia is where celebrities are usually snapped lounging on the beach or private yacht, however this is one of the places where volunteers are needed to help educate the local people about HIV and AIDS. Elton John has seen many of his friend' s succumb to this disease and has channeled his grief into fund raising efforts, providing money for research and vital services to those in need. Join African Impact in the impressive setting of the Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, a UNESCO world heritage site, as they help the local orphans and raise awareness of HIV and AIDS.

Jennifer Lopez helps women around the world

After learning that 350 young women have been killed in areas of Mexico since 1993, causes for women took precedence with this Latino songstress. These issues are certainly not unique to Mexico; volunteers with Kaya Responsible Travel will be improving the future of abused women in the Philippines. This project is about empowering women through encouraging social engagement and teaching them about their rights.

GoVoluntouring is an online community for volunteers, overseas teachers, and learners' abroad that allow users to perform detailed searches from a huge database of projects and programs. With thousands of programs to choose from, GoVoluntouring offers pre-checked charities and non-profits the chance to connect with the volunteers they desperately need, with no added cost to the user or the volunteer organization.  For more information visit

New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in Ghana with Globe Aware,

Happy Birthday to the Peace Corps, Student Volunteers from New York Institute of Technology (NYIT) in Ghana, A profile of Globe Aware, and a short doc on New Orleans.


Water for San Pedro de Casta – Gainesville women ‘vacation’ in Andean town for a cause

Water for San Pedro de Casta

Gainesville women " vacation' in Andean town for a cause

By Evvy Struzynski
Published: Saturday, October 29, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.

The ideal vacation is rarely one where water is a precious commodity. Resort destinations don' t usually advertise vacationers digging a well, educating school children and traveling on a treacherous, one-lane road in the only vehicle in the village. But for some, to sunbathe on a beach just doesn' t cut it.

Three Gainesville women recently returned from a "volunteer vacation" to San Pedro de Casta, Peru, where they worked in rustic conditions for one week helping dig and build a well and teaching children English.

But their work just scratched the surface, and on their return, the women decided to host a fundraiser for the 999 residents of the small village. "Bring Water to San Pedro de Casta" is scheduled from 7 to 10 p.m. Nov. 4 at the United Church of Gainesville.

Beth Karbe, an acupuncturist and herbalist, said she and her friends worked from dawn to dusk and stayed in a hotel with little water and no heat in the Andes Mountains.

"If you could call it a hotel, it was more like a building," she said. "There were no showers and the toilet only flushed every three or four times."

San Pedro de Casta, which is at an elevation of 12,000 feet, is only 50 miles east of Lima, Peru' s capital, but it takes 5 ½ hours to get there due to its remote location.

Karbe said she discovered the volunteer vacation after her first trip to Peru, where she traveled on her own to an orphanage that housed 50 young children. On her second trip in August, she traveled through Globe Aware, a U.S. based non-profit organization that arranges supervised volunteer vacations all over the world to "promote cultural awareness and sustainability," according to its mission statement. This time she traveled with two other Gainesville women, Judy Keathley and Carol Barron.

About 30 percent of San Pedro' s residents are children, and about 80 percent of them are malnourished, according to Karbe. The lack of water means little grass for cows to feed on, which in turn causes the animals to fail to produce milk.

The absence of water creates other difficulties as well, such as sanitation.

Two members on the trip were sick with dysentery, and had to walk a mile to the well to get fresh water, said Barron, the director of construction for Alachua County Habitat for Humanity.

"It was primitive and very intense," she said. "The people there that were 40 looked 65 because they' re so dehydrated."

Barron said that for more than 50 percent of their trip there was no running water, and for the other half of the time the water was freezing.

Karbe said the now dry town was previously a lush plateau, but climate change and global warming has resulted in water becoming scarce.

Karbe said the women were unsatisfied with their progress by the end of the week and wanted to help more.

"As hard as we worked, we didn' t really accomplish that much."

So to compensate, they' ve planned a fundraiser with a goal of raising $22,000 to bring an irrigation and water system to the town.

The "Bring Water to San Pedro" fundraiser includes wine and cheese, a silent auction and live performances of Peruvian music. Tickets cost $35, or for those who are unable to attend the event, a monetary donation can be sent electronically to the Bring Water to San Pedro de Casta Project at the Internet link, and enter "Bring Water to San Pedro" in the field.

The cost of the trip ' not including airfare to Peru, which the women paid for themselves ' covered food, guides, travel costs within the country, tools and their gift to the area ' a water heater for the local school.

Karbe said there are no volunteers scheduled for travel to Peru for the next year, likely due to the rustic living conditions.

"Every time I turn the water on to brush my teeth, I' m grateful," Karbe said.

Copyright © 2011

Globe Aware: Volunteer Vacation Take a trip that will last a lifetime.

“The habitual characteristics of vacations are quite notorious: Stress relief. A hiatus from your accustomed duties. The effortless Pleasures of relaxation, or they can be used to simply revitalize a relationship. Although these likings may be essential, your short-term journey can also benefit the world around you,” writes Kimberly Haddad in Pasadena Magazine.

Ms. Haddad goes on to add that there are are a number of affordable volunteer vacations across the country that will allow the interested and inspired to travel to a unique destination “while giving back to the community. Whether it’s environmental assistance, lending a kinding hand to a child’s education or habitat restoration for wildlife,everyone has the opportunity to take part in an adventure with a purpose.”

Included in her list of top volunteer vacation providers is Globe Aware:

"Globe Aware is a non-profit organization that organizes volunteer vacations in various parts of the world including Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.

Globe Aware allows volunteer travelers the extraordinary opportunity to be involved in a community while gaining valuable knowledge about cultures and the foreign environments we may not be accustomed to. Set goals for yourself and work alongside locals and other volunteers in elaborate hands-on projects like working with disadvantaged children in India, building shade shelters for elephants in Thailand, and working with youngsters who suffer from Down Syndrome in Cuba.

Some volunteer vacation organizations do not offer room and board, but Globe Aware is one of the few that do. Although it may not be as extravagant as you wish, the cost of the program includes housing accommodations and traditional style meals during your stay."

Making A Difference: The World of Giving — Voluntour and Do-Good Vacations

Globe Aware was featured in a June article written by Lisa M. Dietlin, CEO of Lisa M. Dietlin and Associates, Inc., philanthropic advisor, author, for the Huffington Post.

Making A Difference: The World of Giving — Voluntour and Do-Good Vacations
Posted: 06/ 7/11 01:12 PM ET
It’s summertime and many of us are thinking about our vacation plans. With gas prices still rising and travel becoming even more challenging, I recommend considering a Voluntour Vacation or a Do-Good Vacation.
Voluntour vacations or do-good vacations are fast becoming a popular way to plan your excursions and volunteer. Though Americans volunteer in large numbers annually, using a vacation into a volunteer opportunity is a new phenomenon that, surprising to many, is are often tax-deductible.
Here are some reasons to consider voluntouring on your next vacation:
Voluntouring is rapidly gaining popularity. Some studies indicate that as many as half of the people living in the United States intend to take a volunteer vacation at some point in the future.
Voluntouring is thought of as a “mini-stint” in the Peace Corps — you will be working with a community and its residents side by side. It is a unique way to give back.
A voluntour vacation is about helping and learning both in terms of aid, and cultural experiences. Most voluntours are taking place in Third World and developing countries such as Peru, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ghana, Guatemala, India, Jamaica, Laos, Mexico, Morocco, Romania, Russia, Nepal, South Africa, Thailand, or Vietnam.
Remember it is very important, if you plan on doing this, to consider ways to respect and connect with the communities and people you are trying to help.
Your experience can last from 1 to 12 weeks.
Alternatively, Do-Good Vacations are money raising adventures combined with European vacations to Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Scotland and Spain and include nights in historic castles and visits to lesser-known areas. Do-Good Vacations are about traveling to a distant land, working with a nonprofit outfitter to raise money for a cause — unlike voluntouring you will not be working with the local community and its residents.
You can start by finding a reputable organization that works in the area in which you want to explore. Here are a few for a voluntour vacation:
  • Cross-Cultural Solutions was founded in 1995 and has an outstanding reputation. Their tag states:
  • “Volunteer Abroad – work side-by-side with local people and experience another culture like never before. It’s the experience of a lifetime.”
  • They work with over 4000 volunteers annually, have a staff of more than 300, and work in 12 countries.
Globe Aware, which started volunteer missions in 2000 but has been working in this area since 1993, provides short term weeklong adventures in service, focused on cultural awareness and sustainability. Their tag line is:
“Have Fun. Help People.”
Their website states:
  • All costs including air fare are tax deductible
  • You need no special skills nor do you need to speak a foreign language.
  • People can go solo or with families such as multi generational trips.
  • Enjoy befriending people in new and interesting countries and experience the reward of helping them on meaningful community projects.
  • Promote cultural awareness and promote sustainability; cultural awareness means recognizing the beauty and challenges of a culture, but not changing it; sustainability is the idea of helping others to stand on their own two feet; teaching skills rather than reliance.
According to USA Today, Global Volunteers is the:
“granddaddy of the volunteer vacation movement”.
Their tag line is:
“travel that feeds the soul”
Founded in 1984 and facilitated more than 22,000 volunteers on six continents.
You can teach conversational English, care for at risk children, paint, build and repair buildings, provide health care services, work with young children including infants and toddlers as well as teens, adults and elders.
Families, students, solo travelers, Baby Boomers and groups are the types of people that participate.
You can have an experience in Europe, North America, South America, Central America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific.
For Do-Good Vacations, consider these:
  • For a Cause’s mission is to energize and inspire people to make a difference in the lives of those affected by HIV/AIDS and Breast Cancer so that no one faces these battles alone.
  • The World Bank runs a program called Stay Another Day that directs tourists via a website and booklets to pre-evaluated activities that benefit the local community. For instance, vacationers can tour an orphanage in Cambodia, playing with the children and, if they wish, purchase goods such as the silk products the locals have made. The visit is free, but tourists are asked to make a donation.
Here are five recommendations and tips on easy ways to Make A Difference (M.A.D.):
  1. Find the best organization that matches your passion and has a long standing commitment to that area.
  2. Select a trip that suits your abilities and interests.
  3. Speak with volunteers who have been on the excursion before.
  4. If traveling to a non-English speaking country, try to learn the language or at least some phrases; even though it is not required, it is a great way to begin getting prepared.
  5. Research local customs and mores, but recognize that reality can be different from what you read in a book or online.
Bonus Tips: Expect none of the comforts of home. In other words, you will be “roughing it” so go with an open mind and see how your heart is transformed. It can be the vacation of a lifetime!
By taking a voluntour or do-good vacation, here are some benefits to you:
  • You know you will be making a difference through your efforts.
  • Studies show that volunteering adds years and health to your life.
  • You will be traveling to places with unique cultures and in some instances, especially with voluntouring, you become immersed in the culture and community.
  • Your trip could be tax deductible.
  • You will make lifelong friends!
Doing something for someone else always adds value to our life! Consider adding a voluntour or do-good component to your next vacation! You just be might surprised at how vacationing can lead to making a difference! Are you M.A.D. today?

International Herald Tribune features Globe Aware

Globe Aware was featured in a June, 2011 spotlight in the International Herald Tribune:

For students longing to take time off before starting college or university or working people who would like a complete change from their daily occupation, taking a " " gap year' ' can be a rewarding, lifechanging experience, especially if the time is spent volunteering.
Teaching English, for example, is a huge help in poor communities in Asia and requires little training. Other projects may include sports coaching, community building projects and working with handicapped children.
According to studies by such leading universities as Harvard, students who take a year off before college are more focused and motivated when they begin their studies than those who don' t.
Globe Aware, a nonprofit organization based in Texas, organizes volunteer programs around the world.
" " Gap-year volunteering broadens horizons, strengthens résumés and brings the kind of perspective that can change lives,' ' says Catherine Greenberg, its vice president of volunteer communications. " " Kids who volunteer internationally realize how fortunate they are and gain insight into what' s truly important in life ' not money or greed or luxury items, but community, compassion and hard work.' ' Each project aims to promote cultural awareness and/or sustainability. Cultural awareness, explain the organizers, means learning to appreciate a culture but not changing it.
" " By promoting volunteerism,' ' says Greenberg, " " we' re promoting active civic engagement in disadvantaged communities in an exciting and different way.' ' Combining travel with volunteering has become popular enough that a conference on " " voluntourism' ' will be held June 28 in Denver, Colorado.
" " This is the first time there has been a conference held that focuses solely on voluntourism,' ' says its organizer, Alexia Nestora.
Subject matter for the conference will include the economic impact of voluntourism, how it has evolved and how to create sustainable projects, as well as industry sessions on subjects such as the marketing of volunteer travel.
Nestora is a consultant on the industry Though the company is American, Asian students participate, too.
WLS International is a London-based organizer of volunteer-abroad projects that focuses on Asia, specifically Cambodia, China, Nepal, India, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam. Volunteering abroad, says the company, is a way to make travel meaningful and have a simple, affordable vacation. Many of its projects attract those taking a gap year.
Ben Mattress, a young volunteer from Australia, says his weeklong project teaching English to young children in Siem Reap, Cambodia, was a life-changing experience.
The children are " " so happy and eager to learn, and very smart,' ' says Mattress, adding that he is eager to volunteer there again. An added benefit of this project is its location at the gateway to the ancient Angkor Wat temple complex, a Unesco World Heritage site.
Young people may spend several weeks or months abroad, but will certainly return with experiences that will last a lifetime.
Says Greenberg of Global Aware: " " If our local young people can benefit from this experience, it' s one vital step toward reshaping our culture to be more green, more responsible and more caring.' ' and writes the blog Voluntourism Gal. She says that the industry has been very competitive and that conference participants " " are showing their willingness to move into an era of cooperation that can only better serve the sometimes-at-risk and always needy populations where our collective projects are concentrated.' ' In Globe Aware' s Laos program, volunteers have the opportunity to work with orphans and schoolchildren in Luang Prabang.
In a weeklong program, participants work with local monks and perform such tasks as teaching English, assembling wheelchairs from recycled parts and distributing them to the needy, distributing books and helping to repair schools. There is also free time to visit the temples, Buddhist caves and waterfalls of this charming Unesco World Heritage site.
Adventures Cross-Country, a Californiabased youth-travel company, has been leading volunteer programs for gap-year students for nearly 30 years. Its Asia Gap Semester, for example, takes students to China, Thailand and Tibet, and includes such activities as helping mahouts and biologists rehabilitate elephants at the Thai Elephant Conservation Center in Lampang, and teaching English to Chinese and Thai students, some of whom have never met Westerners.