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Volunteer vacations offer a world of opportunities

July 22, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

Shirley Dunn spent part of her vacation doing exactly what she does at work - teaching English.

Only this classroom, halfway across the world in Poland, didn't have blackboards, books, staplers or even a ruler.

Dunn, 46, needed to prove to herself that she could teach without supplies.

"I learned that I could get along without a Xerox machine. I could get along without a computer," she said.

During her two-week stay at a mountain camp in rural Zakopane, she helped four 16-year-old Polish girls create a camp newspaper, which was sewn together with needle and thread.

With the national focus on community service, more and more people are combining volunteerism with vacation, according to Global Volunteers, the nonprofit organization that arranged Dunn's trip.

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More options are available these days for people interested in volunteer vacations, said Norah Peters, who has studied volunteerism as chair of the department of sociology and anthropology at Beaver College in Glenside, Pa.

"Those kinds of programs weren't available 10 years ago," Peters said.

Global Village sends about 120 teams a year to 16 countries that ask for help. In addition to teaching English, volunteers teach business, paint classrooms and assist with health care.

"I love teaching school and I felt that was something I could offer," said Dunn, who teaches high school in Winchester, Va., and lives in Uvilla, W.Va.

Teaching experience is not required, however.

Audrey Esler of Hagerstown, a retired office worker, made a similar trip to Poland in 1993.

"I was very much amazed at the enthusiasm to learn English," said Esler, 73, who taught bank employees and a group of children ages 7 to 9.

Other people prefer to volunteer for manual labor.

Ordinarily he's a business consultant, but last week, Mike Dreisbach, of Hagerstown, spent a week on a bicycle to raise about $4,300 for Habitat for Humanity.

Dreisbach, 47, rode 80 to 100 miles a day along Lake Superior, said Jan Russell, president of the Washington County chapter of the organization.

The Rev. John Buchanan of Living Waters Chapel near Williamsport has made several trips to Haiti to do missionary work. His congregation raised $13,000 to build a mountaintop chapel there.

"It's a week that'll change your life better than a week at Disneyland," said Buchanan, 51, who hopes to take some congregation members with him on his next trip in March.

In our society, people have gotten so used to having their needs met instantly that they lose sight of how lucky they are, he said.

Seeing the primitive conditions there helped Buchanan appreciate what he has.

On a recent sweltering day, Buchanan was thankful to be sitting beside a fan on a day when most would complain unless they were in air conditioning.

Volunteers said their vacations were more meaningful than those spent relaxing on beaches or touring cities.

"On tours you're looking at the country from the outside in. I wanted to experience it from the inside out," Dunn said.

Fintan O'Neill, a retired electrical engineer who lives in Gerrardstown, W.Va., spent much of his life traveling around the world.

But since his first volunteer trip through Global Village about five years ago, he sees no point in traditional traveling.

"I'm 77. I may only live three more days or three more years. I like the idea of helping people," he said.

O'Neill helped build houses in the Rio Grande Valley of Texas and helped dig a water line for Guatemalan villagers.

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