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There are so many ways you can make a difference in the world, and one unique opportunity where you will gain as much as you give is by participating in a volunteering program abroad (or within the U.S.). Collectively referred to a "volunteer vacations," what this really means is that you give of your time and skills during your vacation and in turn help individuals or entire communities.

In general you don't need specific skills or to be able to speak another language -- what you do need is a desire to help people and the open mindedness to learn about new cultures and ways of life. There has been an incredible surge in agencies offering short-term volunteer programs that has kept pace with the continued growth in the number of people who choose this new breed of travel. Opportunities exist throughout the world, but predominantly in developing nations in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Central and South America where the need is the greatest. Apart from programs that offer aid and development for less fortunate communities, there are also environmental, social, scientific, religious, educational and historical programs that can benefit entire economies.

With several reputable not-for-profit organizations offering opportunities, you certainly won't be starved for choice, project or destination. Here are a few ideas to inspire or at the very least, get you motivated. Keep in mind that all programs are priced for land-only and international airfares and taxes will be additional. Program fees and travel expenses are usually tax deductible but you need to check with the respective volunteer agency to confirm details.

Global Vision International (tel. 888/653-6028; www.gviusa.com) has worldwide programs where volunteers assist on critical conservation and education projects ranging from teaching English to indigenous communities in Latin America to wildlife research and conservation in Africa. Their six-week "Patagonia Conservation Project" combines conservation, exploration and trekking in the wild regions of Patagonia, the southern cone of Argentina and Chile. It is priced at $3,320 per person and includes departure support and services, all meals, accommodations (in mobile tents), training materials and science equipment, permits, guides, trekking equipment, comprehensive research training necessary, winter navigation training and certification, basic Spanish course, a side trip to Chile, courses in expedition medicine and wilderness first aid, a Volcano summit attempt, ice climbing or snow skills depending upon the season and 24-hour in-country support.

The project itself consists of surveying the Andean Condor, recording mammal species, and community and environmental education project. Groups are usually made up of 12 to 20 participants, along with staff placed at each base. 2007 departure dates are April 14, May 26, September 22 and November 3.

Globe Aware (tel. 877/588-4562; www.globeaware.org) develops short-term volunteer programs in international environments that use activities to promote cultural awareness and/or sustainability. Their one-week "Sustaining Thailand's Treasures Program" gives participants the opportunity to live in a unique environment with Buddhist monks and experience traditional Thai culture. Different activities may include interpreting English songs for Buddhist monks, helping at a nursery, training for the disadvantaged, enhancing capacity at a rehabilitation shelter, emergency relief, elderly care, teaching basic English in impoverished schools and giving basic computer instruction.

The objective of the project is to conserve and revive the natural environment and encourage the sustainability of Thai traditional agriculture and culture. The location will be approximately one hour from Bangkok with accommodation in traditional Thai style group homes (no hot water but rarely missed in the tropical climate) and limited electricity available. Traditional Thai style meals are cooked with your help, throughout the day. Leisure activities may include Thai cooking classes, excursions to cultural heritage areas, getting a Thai massage and visiting floating markets. 2007 departure dates are March 3, 17 and 31, April 14, December 1 and 15, 2007 and the cost to participate is $1,090 including all ground transportation, accommodation, meals and excursions.

Responsible Travel (tel. +44/1273-600-030; www.responsibletravel.com) specializes in a combination of environmentally and eco-friendly travel options as well as volunteer opportunities overseas. A two week "Tsunami Volunteer Project" in Sri Lanka 2007 will give volunteers as opportunity to make a difference in a part of the world that has endured unspeakable suffering. Activities include support in the building and maintenance of temporary housing camps and community centers, playing with children, teaching English, clearing rubbish from beaches, planting trees and renovating damaged buildings. Based on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka (Mount Lavinia, Dehiwala, Moratuwa, Kalutara, Galle, Matara, Tangalle, Hambantota, Kosgoda and Galle), the project provides ongoing, long-term assistance to communities affected by the Tsunami in December 2004. The most important skill you must bring to this placement is flexibility, as the work will vary depending on the needs of the projects and will develop over time. This placement would suit a volunteer with a lot of initiative, who can work and communicate with people from all walks of life. 2007 trip dates are March 4 and 18, April 22, May 6 and 20, June 3 and 17, July 8 and 22, August 5 and 19, September 2 and 16, October 7 and 21, November 4 and18 and December 2 and 16. Prices start at $1,550 per person including all ground transportation, accommodation and meals. Additional weeks can extend the program for under $200 a week.

Transitions Abroad (www.transitionsabroad.com/listings/work/volunteer/index.shtml) has its own portal for volunteer vacations overseas and allows users to search for opportunities by region or country, rather than by organization or cause. For example when I searched programs for Tanzania, over a dozen options from various organizations across the U.S and predominantly the U.K came up ranging from education to healthcare, environmental work to childcare. One such option was Global Service Corps' (tel. 415/788-3666 ext. 128; www.globalservicecorps.org) "Local Homestays in Tanzania" program which offers opportunities for program participants to live in Tanzania homes while volunteering on service and development projects. Participants live with families who generously introduce their culture, cuisine and customs through excursions and daily interaction, providing a unique cultural experience. Project areas include health, HIV/AIDS prevention, and sustainable agriculture for nutrition and hunger relief working in hospitals, health clinics, schools, farms, and community and government organizations. This program runs throughout the year at a cost of $2,325 to $2,815 for two- to four- week project trips and $25-$35 per day for six-week to six-month extensions. These prices include extensive pre-departure preparation and in-country expenses, hotel and home-stays, all meals, orientation, training, project expenses, ground transportation, excursions and Swahili lessons.

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