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Who knew it would be so hard to make a banana split? The pressure was on, but every time I tried to slice the banana in half, it broke into several pieces. Never mind that the fruit would be hidden under mounds of ice cream, hot fudge and whipped cream. These were important banana splits I was crafting, and I wanted them to be perfect.

You see, I was making them for children in the Make-a-Wish program (in Orlando). These brave souls, all of whom are battling life-threatening illnesses, stay at a non-profit resort called the Give Kids the World Village. The children and their families are supplied with free lodging (lovely, two-bedroom stand-alone villas), free food, transportation, entertainment and theme park tickets. To keep costs low, the staff is made up mostly of volunteers — about 1,400 a week in all. Two weeks ago, I was one of them.

I could have volunteered at the tiny beauty parlor where girls get temporary tattoos, the only wheelchair-accessible merry-go-round in the United States, the resort’s evening show, or in another much-needed position. I picked scooping and the three hours I spent interacting with the children and parents and watching their faces glow with smiles were the most joyous time I had in Orlando.

As an added bonus, I combined my volunteer experience with traditional Orlando activities. I rode the roller coasters all day and then helped out when the sun set. The Give Kids the World Village only requires a commitment of three hours, usually in the morning or evening (the busiest times, since the families tend to be at the theme parks during the day).

Short, flexible volunteer opportunities

Thought they’re not widely publicized, short-term, volunteer opportunities exist in pretty much every locale tourists visit. They offer a rich opportunity for the traveler to connect with locals, get off the beaten path and do something very, very good. 

And the variety of volunteer opportunities is staggering. Want to see turtles laying their eggs on the sand and help guard the mothers and eggs? Volunteer for an evening in dozens of locales from Costa Rica to Greece to Zanzibar. Interested in helping scientists with the yearly whale count in Kauai? That’s an afternoon-long volunteer activity you can easily sandwich into a beachy getaway. These experiences don’t take much time, but I’m guessing they’ll be a highlight of your vacation.

Here’s how to get involved in the mini-volunteer vacations already discussed, plus a few others:

•    Give Kids the World Village (800-995-KIDS; www.gktw.org). Background checks are required on all volunteers, so apply a minimum of two weeks before your scheduled visit.
•    Sea turtle protection programs (www.seaturtle.org). This is the clearinghouse for opportunities around the globe.
•    Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale Marine Sanctuary (808-246-2860; http://hawaiihumpbackwhale.noaa.gov./involved/ocvolunteer.html). Participate in the yearly whale count and other volunteer opportunities.
•    Help London stay "green." The London Wildlife Trust (020-7261-0447; www.wildlondon.org.uk) and Thames 21 (www.thames21.org.uk) do good work in London, such as building burrows for the local hedgehog population and keeping the banks of the Thames clean. Very few vacationers help out, so you’ll be paired with actual Londoners, a treat.

Or DIY. If there’s an organization you admire, call and see if it can use a helping hand. I know a traveler who did this quite successfully at an elephant sanctuary in Thailand. You might offer your services in return for freebies. Many music and cooking festivals couldn’t get off the ground without the help of volunteers. Offering to help will gain you free admission and may allow you to rub shoulders with artists and chefs you admire. You’ll have to arrange for your own housing and meals, but hey, you do that on most vacations anyway.