Volunteering Abroad: Save on Travel, Help Others, Fulfill Your Dreams

My ideal vacation combines fun and work. It’s a preference that dates back to childhood, when my brother and I passed the time at a rustic cottage near Algonquin Park by building a driftwood raft to paddle around. So it only seemed logical that it would also be fun to combine travel with home construction.

In my case, I was drawn to El Salvador, but there are many other places and similar opportunities for a working vacation. My wife and I had sponsored a “foster” child in El Salvador through Plan Canada. We noted in her letters that she had missed many months of school due to illness. Poor water, sanitation, and living quarters likely played a part. We also learned her nation had been set back by natural disasters, civil wars, gang violence, and intimidation. So it was clear to us that other folks in the area could use some help.

To get there, I chose the safety of travelling under the banner of Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program. Fellow retirees from the Toronto Star—Donald Sellar, former ombudsman, and Robert Crew, theatre critic—turned to Facebook to find a team of 12 men and women. These two jovial men had worked on other Habitat projects both at home and abroad. So they knew how to pick an ethical team, and how to lead it safely.


Group discounts, tax credits, and sponsors lower costs

Together Don and Rob arranged for the group’s transportation, accommodation, meals, insurance, and recreational activities. They negotiated group rates and booked rooms to fit two or three team members. This kept basic costs to little more than $2,000 each: $675 for building materials, stonemasons, and the local Habitat organization, $744 for direct flights between Toronto and San Salvador, $45 US per day for hotels, meals, and transportation, plus $200 for personal spending. Travel vaccines were extra.

Volunteering abroad work site 2a

We were eligible for savings by claiming a charitable tax credit for the donation, travel costs, and accommodation during the five workdays. One member of the team saved money by raising donations from sponsors, who will also get to claim tax credits.

Before we left, Don and Rob provided us with tips on how to dress, what tools to pack, and which safety and security measures to take. They also gave us a sheet with Spanish terms that would be useful on the worksite. I prepared for sun and mosquitoes by purchasing white, long-sleeved dress shirts, which I figured would be a good gift to leave behind with Habitat El Salvador. I found five at Value Village for only $50.

We arrived on a Saturday and were greeted, guided, and supported by Luis Viscarra, our volunteer coordinator. Luis is a fully bilingual business graduate who had lived in Toronto for a time with his architect parents. He provided us with a crash course on the history and culture of his country, and the next day took us on a quick tour of San Salvador before we left for San Vicente by van. He also helped us speak with the family and local tradesmen at the work site, coordinated delivery of food and materials, and did some digging and carrying too.


Get down and dirty with a manual labour lesson

In 2009, a landslide killed more than 200 people and destroyed 2,350 homes in San Vicente and in neighbouring communities. But hundreds of new homes have since been built by Habitat and other volunteer organizations. Our hotel resembled a large home, and was surrounded by tall concrete walls to keep out unwanted visitors. It was there that we met the father, mother, and two young sons whose home we were going to help build. They lived, at that time, between the homes of the husband’s mother and his sister, in a leaky, galvanized metal structure with an earthen floor. Behind it, an outhouse sat over a pit of sewage, like at the cottage our family rented in the 1950s.

Our job was to dig trenches for a foundation in the same walled compound. We used a shovel to mix concrete and mortar, moved concrete blocks, and twisted wire to connect the metal rods that are used to reinforce the foundation and blocks in case of an earthquake. Two Spanish-speaking bricklayers supplied the brainpower, measuring, levelling, and laying of blocks. They used hand signals to direct us when Luis was away.


Take your reward by the side of a pool

House we built El Salvador volunteering

At the worksite, we were supplied chairs for rest breaks, a canopy for shade, a large supply of clean water, and delicious catered snacks and lunches. The expectant homeowners provided us with beer on our final workday. Afterwards, we spent much of the weekend relaxing and swimming at a quaint hotel filled with local art and sculptures. We shopped for gifts and toured Suchitoto, east of San Salvador. Unlike San Vicente, the attractive buildings in this town are not hidden behind tall walls and razor wire—a sign that residents feel less vulnerable to criminal activity. We saw no armed security guards, only a small police station near our hotel.

By the time we left the worksite, only the foundation and four layers of concrete block were in place. But, weeks later, photographs arrived by email. They showed a tidy and brightly painted home, complete with an indoor washroom, two bedrooms, a dining and family room, a television, stereo equipment, and hammocks for relaxing. In the photos, the lady of the house is smiling with pride. She learned later that she was expecting a third child.

If you are interested in taking part in a similar adventure, watch for proposed trips on the Global Village website or on the websites of other volunteer-supported organizations.


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