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Hooked on Volunteer Vacations: Building Houses in New Zealand Started Tradition for Mother, Son
"It never occurred to us to do anything else," Barb Celio says of the unorthodox vacation she took with her son Bobby after he graduated from college. The two traveled to New Zealand -- not to relax on the beaches or hike the mountains, but to build houses with Habitat for Humanity International, joining an increasing number of people who are finding ways to incorporate social awareness into their travel plans.
"You can learn a lot more about the culture by interacting directly with the people rather than being removed from all of it in typical tourist fashion. I love learning about the traditions of the people rather than hanging out at a hotel."
"Since Bobby was about to enter the adult world, I wanted to do something really special with him before he went off on a life of his own." In one of Bobby's courses at Virginia Tech, he had helped design a house for a Habitat family, and the next semester he and his classmates built it. This experience planted the idea for the trip. "I guess we could have gone to Europe together, but we decided to build houses instead," says Barb. "We never thought about why we did it; we just did it. We are a service-oriented family, and this trip fit into what we've always done. It was just a lot more exciting, interesting, and challenging experience to have."
Something must have clicked, because since that first trip, the two have gone on five other trips with Habitat for Humanity, traveling across the country to help bring the dream of homeownership to more people.
The New Zealand trip was not just an opportunity for bonding between Barb and Bobby; it was also an opportunity to bond with other volunteers and other local people. They joined other volunteers, mostly from the U.S., in building two homes over the course of 16 days. The international volunteers stayed in the homes of local people, where they were "very well fed," according to Barb.
Staying in the homes of local Kiwi people offered a glimpse into another culture that would not have been possible on a typical vacation. As Barb puts it, "I find staying in a hotel to be very sterile. You don't get that personal interaction; you're really cut off from the people. Bobby and I both believed it's a lot more fun and more valuable to be integrated into the community where you're traveling. You can learn a lot more about the culture by interacting directly with the people rather than being removed from all of it in typical tourist fashion. I love learning about the traditions of the people rather than hanging out at a hotel...It felt like we were part of the family."
The personal connections that Barb forged with the local people she met on the other side of the planet helped to broaden her perspective. She explains, "I think the more we learn about other people, the more we realize that they're just like us -- and the stereotypes disappear. They may wear different clothes and have different customs, but we're all basically people. Our volunteer vacation trips have made me more tolerant and accepting of other people that are different than me. For example, in talking to one mother in particular, I learned that she has the same hopes and dreams for her kids that I have for mine, even though we live so many thousands of miles from each other."
International volunteering does not necessarily mean missing out on fun times. While building houses and interacting with local people were the main focus of their New Zealand trip, Habitat also provided opportunities to explore the region. Barb and Bobby had a few days of "R&R" during which they took day trips to see other parts of the country. They went to see hot springs, mountain ranges, and Bobby even went bungee jumping.
Barb strongly recommends incorporating volunteering into travels. "Volunteering is a more enriching experience than regular travel," she says, "because you learn more about the people who live in the country you're visiting -- their way of life and what they think is important. I like traveling and learning about other cultures. I like helping people. So I combine it all together -- it's just such a rush."
How You Can Get Involved
Habitat for Humanity's "Global Village" volunteer program provides short-term house-building opportunities in nearly 100 countries around the world, including many in the United States and Canada. Here's a list of current overseas opportunities.