A woman stands with her young son on the porch of a simple house painted a lively green.

Maria Teresa and her son José in front of their newly-built home. Photo © Amy E. Robertson.

“I am infinitely grateful to God and to each of you for having put your heart, time, and effort in helping to construct my house and give a decent home to my son….”

Those were the words of Maria Teresa Padilla to our work brigade when construction on her cement-block home was completed. Maria Teresa, age 27, was a single mother working as a secretary and studying for her bachelor’s degree—just one of the 62 percent of Hondurans who live in poverty. She and her seven-year-old son José had been living cheek-to-jowl with her mother, two sisters, and a brother in a marginalized neighborhood of the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa. With the assistance of an international non-profit organization, Maria Teresa was able to take out a low-interest loan and build a house—small and simple, but with a bedroom each for her and her son. A place to call her own.

Blisters formed as fast as new friendships, and we left the site each afternoon with sunburns, sore muscles, and smiles.Our work brigade’s first back-breaking task was digging trenches for the foundation: we slung pick-axes and shoveled dirt into wheelbarrows to be carted away. We lugged gravel by the bucketful and sand by the bag up the flight of stairs that had to be climbed to reach the property, which was located on a steep hill. We mixed the gravel, sand, cement, and water by hand to make concrete, and we poured it into our trenches to create the foundation. We cut wire and rebar and twisted them into supports. Blisters formed as fast as new friendships, and we left the site each afternoon with sunburns, sore muscles, and smiles. It was thrilling when we got to the bricks and mortar, carefully stacking concrete blocks to start the walls. Through the collective effort of our work brigade, staff from Habitat for Humanity, their locally hired foreman, and Maria Teresa herself, we were able to make significant progress on the house during our week of volunteering. Several months later, Maria Teresa moved out of her mother’s humble home and into her own.

At the age of 13, Amy's first volunteer experience with Habitat for Humanity.

At the age of 13, Amy’s first volunteer experience was with Habitat for Humanity.

This volunteer experience brought me full circle—my first volunteer vacation was also building homes with Habitat for Humanity, traveling with a youth group to eastern Washington State when I was 13. It was a boisterous youth-build week, with a hundred or so teenagers from across the state all sleeping in a school gym and working on various houses in nearby communities. I first helped repair the home of a 73-year-old man. A drunk driver had crashed into his little home on a corner, knocking a gaping hole through one wall, and for months, a thin sheet of plastic had been all that kept out the elements. When we finished repairing his house, we joined the teams who were working on a simple three-bedroom for a family of 10 that was crammed together in a one-bedroom house.

My total time in eastern Washington was just one week, but it was lived so intensely that it left an indelible mark on me. The emotional connections and camaraderie shared—with both my fellow volunteers and the people whose homes we were repairing and building—was amazing, and it was gratifying to be able to help people in need. The experience also put faces on economic inequality for me, and opened my eyes to its injustice. Later that summer, I returned for a second week of service. The “beneficiaries” had become friends, and I shared in their joy when the house was completed.

Did they count as vacations if I worked so hard? Each was a break from routine, a trip away from home, and most of all, an experience that reinvigorated body and soul. What more can we ask of a vacation?

Good volunteer vacations give travelers the opportunity to insert themselves into the local reality and meet locals on their own terms. Volunteer work has taken me to other places over the years. I helped monitor presidential elections in coastal towns of Ecuador, where I was awed to see voters stand in long lines under the hot sun in order to exercise their right to vote. I traveled to Bolivia, where I worked with a team in El Alto and Potosí, teaching disadvantaged youth how to create social documentaries, leaving behind the equipment and technical know-how for the project to continue once we “voluntourists” were gone.

I was living in Honduras when I volunteered there with Habitat for Humanity, and I had organized the work brigade as part of my parents’ visit to Tegucigalpa. We were traveling to the country’s Maya ruins and golden beaches during their stay, but I wanted to add another dimension to their experience as well—one that is much more reflective of reality for most Hondurans.

Good volunteer vacations give travelers the opportunity to insert themselves into the local reality and meet locals on their own terms. Find a project that truly addresses a locally-expressed need, and when you arrive, be sure to listen to what the locals have to say. While you’re at it, eat their food, buy their handicrafts, and allow them to be your guides. Share a piece of yourself—your thoughts and your talents, your enthusiasm and your skills. No matter how great the project, the most cherished memories are inevitably about the people you met along the way.