Six years ago, David Haeussler had zero interest in traveling to El Salvador and perhaps only slightly more interest in his Catholic faith. So when an ad in the parish bulletin prompted his wife, Monica, to sign up for a trip to El Salvador with the FIAT Volunteer Program, David was concerned. He worried the trip would be unsafe and recommended she not go alone. So Monica invited him to join her.
“I said I’ll just go down to El Salvador, work and come back,” David said. But after he arrived in the country, it did not take long for his plans to change. “I fell in love with the people there,” he said. “My views didn’t match the reality. The trip changed the way I look at immigration, at the third world, at the bonds that we all have.”
The FIAT Volunteer Program, run by the Handmaids of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, is one of many Catholic organizations that offer short-term service trips to individuals who are trying to live out their faith beyond the boundaries of their hometown. According to voluntourism.org, 4.7 million people, from teens to retirees, combined travel and service opportunities in 2007, and one million of those traveled internationally. There are many Catholics among them.
Although short-term programs are sometimes criticized for focusing on charity rather than sustainability, both the volunteers and those they serve often are affected for the long-term. David, 62, and Monica, 53, have returned to El Salvador seven times, and David has enlisted the help of organizations like Engineers Without Borders and the Rotary Club to complete a water distribution project for a village, while Monica has helped raise funds for a school lunch program for children, among other projects.
The potential for personal and spiritual growth over even a short trip is tremendous, said Gloria Patrone, O.S.B., FIAT’s director of volunteers. Sister Patrone said the volunteers often feel they are receiving more than they give. “They say, ‘What are we really doing here?’ and I say ‘building relationships.’ Relationships are the basis of everything.”
Potential volunteers need not leave U.S. soil to build relationships and make a difference. Nazareth Farm in Salem, W.Va., offers weeklong service retreats for close to 2,000 high school and college students each year. The 31-year-old farm also holds special retreat-service weeks for families and adults. Volunteers assist the farm staff in conducting home repairs for the surrounding, often poor, rural community and complete chores on the farm. “A lot of kids haven’t done these kinds of physical tasks before,” said Jordan Schiele, a staff member at the farm. “Doing the work and also realizing that they are able to do it impacts them. Through meeting the homeowners and seeing how people live here, the volunteers experience God in a different way.”
While most short-term service programs offer time for group reflection, volunteers may seek to nurture their contemplative side. Women may want to look to the Benedictine Lay Volunteers. Those 18 and older can take part in the prayerful routine of Benedictine life while serving at the Mother of God Monastery in Watertown, S.D. The length and areas of service are flexible—from teaching English as a second language to assisting with a day camp on the nearby Crow Creek Reservation. “It’s not a big dramatic missionary adventure to a far-off location, although those are wonderful,” said Rose Palm, O.S.B., the director of volunteers. “There’s more quiet spiritual time because it’s built into our daily life. Many people who come like the idea of sharing community and meals and prayer with us.”
Volunteers more interested in the political side of injustice may want to consider the Columban Volunteers, who offer short-term exposure trips to locations like Peru and the U.S.-Mexico border. These trips focus on volunteer education rather than direct service. “It’s about an encounter at a table,” said Amy Woolam Echeverria, the director of the Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach. “We give volunteers a chance to hear people in need tell their story and understand the conditions in which they live.” The Columban Volunteers also make a conscious effort to follow up with participants and to encourage the young participants in the border-experience trip to remain active in advocacy work through an internship at the Columban Center in Washington, D.C.
No matter the destination, an open mind is key to making the most of any volunteer commitment, Monica Haeussler said. She knows her travels to El Salvador may sound exotic, but she insists she is nothing special. “Dave and I aren’t holy rollers,” she said laughing. “A lot of people think these trips are the religious equivalent of extreme sports for athletes, but it’s something everyone should do at least once.”