Cornelius resident and retired surgeon Dr. Philip Strawther was a resident at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill in the late 1980s when he embarked on a life-changing trip. The chief of surgery asked Strawther if he’d like to journey to Liberia, Africa with Operation Smile, a medical charity that provides reconstructive surgery for children born with facial deformities such as a cleft lip or cleft palate. Strawther jumped at the chance, and the experience sparked in him a passion for volunteering his time and talent to help people in need. Over the last two decades he has gone on about 25 trips with both Operation Smile and Health Talents International, a nonprofit Christian organization that provides medical assistance in developing countries. Earlier this year he went on a trip to Guatemala, where Strawther says it’s not unusual for him and four other doctors to operate on more than 125 patients during a week. “In many situations we may be the only medical personnel these people will ever see,” says Strawther. “I know I’m making a difference.” While it didn’t have a trendy name back when Strawther first started going on these trips, a growing number of people, particularly families, are embracing what’s been dubbed “voluntourism” as a way to see the world and make a difference in people’s lives, says Doug Cutchins, co-author of the guidebook “Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others.” Rather than lounge by the pool sipping colorful drinks, Cutchins says more people—impacted by high-profile disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Indonesian Tsunami—are traveling both in the U.S. and abroad to help the less fortunate and to teach their children important values and lessons, Cutchins says. An extreme example of this is Charlottean J.D. Lewis and his two sons, Buck, 10, and Jackson, 15. The family returned in August from a yearlong odyssey during which they visited 12 countries, including Rwanda, Russia, India and Thailand, where they performed humanitarian efforts focused on issues such as HIV/AIDS, clean water, housing and child labor. Lewis says the journey was a life-changing experience for all of them, and he and his sons are working on a book and a documentary about their journey, which will hopefully inspire others to embark on their own humanitarian trip. Kevin Beaty, a Huntersville-based photographer, took his first volunteer vacation earlier this year as a member of a Habitat for Humanity home-building mission to Guatemala, one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Beaty says Habitat officials did a good of communicating with him what he should expect and how he should prepare for the trip, during which he hauled cinderblocks and other building materials. The experience really opened his eyes to how people from other parts of world lived, he says. “People need to know there are different standards of living in different cultures and some people may not enjoy our standard of living, it doesn’t mean they’re not happy.” Matt Hearn, the youth pastor for Lake Norman Baptist Church in Huntersville, has gone on several volunteer mission trips through his church. In September, he traveled to Moldova and Ukraine in Eastern Europe where he co-led a group of volunteers that brought clothing and other supplies to an orphanage and other local people in need. Hearn and other also scouted locations for an upcoming building project where volunteers will build a church and recreation center. “While it breaks your heart to see the level of need that exists in the places we visited, it also ignites the passion to want to do more to help make a difference in others’ lives,” says Hearn.
Want to give back? There are plenty of resources available for people who are interested in taking these kind of charitable trips. Below are a few to help get you started.
Volunteer Forever (www.volunteerforever.com) provides information about philanthropic organizations, fundraising tactics and other tips to help you plan for a volunteer vacation. Founder and CEO Steven Weddle, a former Durham resident, started the site after volunteering at an HIV orphanage in India.
Habitat for Humanity Charlotte: http://www.habitatcharlotte.org/
Health Talents International: http://www.healthtalents.org/
Lake Norman Baptist Church: http://www.lakenormanbaptist.com/ Operation Smile: http://www.operationsmile.org/