stationed in Frankfurt, Germany, on a five-year assignment with
the US Foreign Service, Tim Farrell got used to traveling long
distances at the holidays. But his goal was never to visit and
exchange gifts with family.
have everything they need," he says of his seven siblings and
14 nieces and nephews in New York and New Jersey. "They don't
need anything else from me."
for each of the past three years, Mr. Farrell has flown to Budapest,
Hungary, and then ridden four bumpy hours in a bus to Romania's
poorest county. There, in Barlad, he says he's found "the real
idea of Christmas" by spending three weeks among some 35 orphaned
and abandoned children, ages 4 and under, who turn to him for
food, hugs, and modest toys (when he's dressed as Santa).
Farrell and a small but growing number of fellow traveling volunteers,
a service trip has become the holiday season's big-ticket item.
One sign: in response to growing demand, Global Volunteers of
St. Paul, Minn., has grown its list of holiday season trips
from one in 2001 to eight this year.
by various outfitters, tax-deductible service trips for one
to three weeks generally cost between $1,000 and $3,000. Last
year, Farrell spent $2,200, plus airfare. Many participants
raise funds by inviting friends and family to sponsor their
trips. The sponsors then feel personally invested in the outreach,
according to Global Volunteers.
told, costs can sometimes be comparable to what a family would
spend on plane tickets and gifts. But people who have taken
service trips during the holidays insist they're getting the
season's best deals.
advantage to service trips now is lower prices, in some cases.
Earthwatch Institute in Maynard, Mass., for instance, cut prices
on its December trips by 25 percent this year. The reason: to
encourage participants, even in a busy and demanding season,
to gather data from the field in order to save endangered reefs,
otters, macaws, caterpillars, and 800-pound turtles.
scientists need help" whenever their schedules permit a research
project, says Earthwatch spokeswoman Delta Willis. But, she
adds, "December is a time when there's a lot of competition
for people's attention." Now, instead of paying the usual $2,849
for 10 days of snorkeling, scuba diving, and documenting sealife
around Thailand's coral reefs, participants pay $2,137 plus
a $35 membership fee.
include lodging and food. And while participants must do some
scientific observation (videotape otters, tag turtles, take
reef measurements), each trip also allows for some free time.
about 3 percent of Global Volunteers' 2,000 annual participants
take part during the holidays. Still, two categories of people
are showing consistent interest, according to the group's president
and co-founder, Bud Philbrook. He says parents who say, "My
kids have everything," and want to expand their children's horizons,
find holiday service trips among some of the world's neediest
provide a powerful antidote to the shopping frenzy that comes
with the holiday season.
are also common for people who have lost a loved one in the
last year and want to radically change their usual Christmas
just don't want to spend the holidays home alone," Mr. Philbrook
says. "Some people ... would go on a cruise, [but] some instead
want to give something back."
service trip can pay therapeutic dividends at other times, too.
That was the case for the family of Katrina Hart of Hamilton,
Mass., in 2003.
the time, the condition of Mrs. Hart's husband had deteriorated
to the point where he could no longer appreciate Christmas celebrations
and was in an assisted-living facility. Mrs. Hart suggested
a radical change: a service trip with her daughters and their
husbands to Cuba.
always told us, 'When you're feeling bad about yourself, do
something for someone else,' " remembers her daughter, Alexandra
Hart, a San Diego artist. They
avoided crowds by flying on Christmas Day and distributed medical
supplies to Cuban clinics through local organizations for disabled
next year, Alexandra and her husband and mother undertook an
even bolder adventure: sleeping on cots in an Immokalee, Fla.,
homeless shelter. On Christmas Day, they helped serve hot meals
to a few thousand needy people in a city park.
dinner, Alexandra photographed dozens of Haitian and Guatemalan
children receiving toys from someone dressed as Santa Claus.
was very poignant to study each face as the children sat for
the first time on an enormous, fluffy, Santa Claus lap," she
says. "I was moved to tears almost the entire day [by] the newness,
the excitement" of the moment reflected in the children's faces.
popularity of short-term service trips in the summer is rising,
but some trip leaders have hesitated to extend them into the
winter holidays. Gale Hull of Ipswich, Mass., for instance,
leads relief trips by Partners In Development to Haiti and Guatemala
throughout the year. But she says the group has yet to offer
an opportunity during Christmas week.
didn't think people would go," Ms. Hull says.
those who have gone at Christmas say the benefits of service
travel are magnified when volunteers and local residents take
time together for worship, feasting, and gifts.
year, Joy Campbell of Lansing, Mich., and her husband, Kyle
Enger, spent Christmas in a rural Tanzanian village. The only
electricity came from generators and the running water was sporadic.
They traveled in mid-December for pragmatic reasons, since it
was the only time when both could get four consecutive weeks
off from work.
as soon as they arrived, Ms. Campbell appreciated the timing:
"It was liberating to be away from the rush and the ads and
the countdown to Christmas."
Christmas Eve, the couple worked daily on a mural and a library
construction project while local residents spent long days attending
to basic needs. On Christmas Day, however, everyone took a rare
break. As a special treat, two village brothers ate rice and
shared a Coca-Cola.
donned their cleanest clothes and attended three worship services.
There they performed traditional Lutheran liturgies in Swahili,
with the complement of drums. At the offering, the poorest residents
dropped bananas and coffee beans into the collection plate.
After the benediction, a church leader auctioned off the foodstuffs
in the courtyard to the highest bidders.
Campbell, Christmas among the Tanzanians left her feeling grateful
there get by with so little," she says. "They're content to
play with sticks and sit in dirt and watch a bug.... It confirmed
for me that we're on the right track" in terms of choosing to
live simply, with no TV and just one car, back in the United
some cases, mission trips at the holidays seem to spawn new
traditions. For students and faculty at St. Joseph's College
of Maine, the New Year almost always begins with a service trip.
The settings aren't always pretty. Three years ago, 10 volunteers
built concrete homes in the poorest slum on earth in Port-au-prince,
Haiti. Last year, another 20 provided dental care to Mayan villagers
in a remote mountain enclave in Guatemala.
aside, Associate Professor of Theology Steven Bridge has come
to regard the annual trip as "a refresher course in how to live
a richer life."
have these rich social networks [in Guatemala], where all the
adults watch all the kids, so 20 or 30 kids are playing together
at any given time," Mr. Bridge says. "All the men go to work
in the same cane field, and they come back together. [In Maine],
we rarely see the neighbors....
good to see differences, see alternative ways of doing things,"
he says, "rather than just think, 'This is our culture. This
is the way we do it, so that's the only way there is.' "
Copyright © 2006 The Christian