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Living Longer, Living Better | Lifestyle

Service with a smile

Volunteering transforms travel — and the traveler, too

After a few days touring in the Masai Mara, Rob Richards taught Kenyans how to use solar water purifiers. After a few days touring in the Masai Mara, Rob Richards taught Kenyans how to use solar water purifiers. (Marcel Dufresne)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / February 27, 2011

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Poverty, drought, and corruption are not typical backdrops for the trip of a lifetime.

But this was the setting for Barbara and Rob Richards’ volunteer vacation with American Friends of Kenya, a Connecticut charity that organizes two-week humanitarian trips to help schools, hospitals, libraries, and other institutions in Kenya.

The retired couple from Old Mystic, Conn., spent more than a year considering the project and saving money before committing about $6,000 to their first visit to Africa. American Friends of Kenya describes the experience as a trip that allows volunteers to see the beauty of Kenya while making a difference in the lives of people lacking basic human needs, such as clean water, sanitation, and health care.

“One of the things that worried me was how I would handle the poverty in the slums. But what amazed me was the spirit of the people, despite the squalor they live in,’’ Rob Richards said. “It’s the kind of trip you come home and think about every few days.’’

The Richardses’ voyage to Africa is an example of volunteer-based vacations that allow travelers in or near retirement to experience some of the world’s most spectacular places at affordable rates, while also doing some good. These “voluntourism’’ programs are among the fastest-growing areas of travel, and increasingly popular among baby boomers demanding more from vacations than good times on the beach, said Peter Greenberg, travel editorat large for AARP, the lobby for older Americans.

“It’s all experience driven,’’ Greenberg said. “They want to give back now that they have the time. It’s about combining experience with vacation.’’

American Friends of Kenya, in Norwich, Conn., is one of many nonprofits offering such opportunities. The groups often focus on a particular region, including Asia and Africa, or address a specific issue, such as the environment. Earthwatch Institute in Boston, for example, recruits close to 4,000 volunteers a year to join scientific research teams and collect field data in rainforests, wildlife conservation areas, and other places.

Global Service Corps organizes programs for volunteers to work at orphanages in Cambodia, teach English in Thailand, and assist with HIV/AIDS prevention in Tanzania.

United Planet, a Boston nonprofit, offers volunteer opportunities around the world. Prices start at $945 for two weeks in Mexico and go up to $8,265 for a year in India or Nepal. Airfare alone for a pleasure trip to some of these destinations could cost more than an entire United Planet program. The fees cover meals, lodging (usually host families), excursions, language training, cultural activities, comprehensive medical and travel insurance, and extensive training.

Since the company is nonprofit, volunteers can fund-raise to offset fees, which, along with the cost of airline tickets, are tax-deductible. United Planet also offers scholarships for selected volunteers.

Albert Flannery, a 58-year-old retired mailman from the Boston area, traveled to China through United Planet, arriving in 2008 in the city of Chengdu, where he taught English and learned Mandarin. He signed up for a monthlong program for about $2,400, excluding air fare. He ended up spending two years in China teaching high school, and has since participated in volunteer programs in Cambodia and Vietnam.

“It was life-changing,’’ Flannery said.

Taking a service vacation is typically less expensive that purely pleasure trips. American Friends of Kenya, for example, has negotiated missionary discounts through British Airways, which offers tickets for about $1,650 per person — hundreds less than what regular vacationers would pay. The land portion in Kenya costs another $1,600 and includes all on-the-ground expenses, such as transportation, meals, and hotel.

American Friends of Kenya also offers flexibility for personal travel around volunteer programs, and helps organize the excursions. The Richardses, for example, arrived in Kenya early for a three-day safari in the Masai Mara, where they enjoyed stunning vistas and magnificent wildlife.

But volunteer trips are not for everybody. Don’t expect a restful vacation or four-star accommodations. The Richardses stayed in an austere hotel room for most of the trip. In the streets, they were confronted daily with poverty, hunger, and drought.

After arriving in Nairobi in the summer of 2009, the Richardses spent several days in a wildlife park getting to know other American volunteers and preparing for the rest of the trip, which took them to poor sections of Nairobi and impoverished rural villages. The volunteers split into teams providing medical care, setting up school libraries, teaching sports, and offering computer assistance.

On the outskirts of Nairobi, Rob Richards, a retired engineer, taught Kenyans struggling with drought to assemble and use solar-powered water purifiers. Now, every time Richards draws water at home, he thinks about the friends he made in Kenya.

Barbara Richards called the trip a “very powerful experience.’’

“I was just so impressed by the vitality and the joy of the people we met in the streets in the face of what we would consider to be horrendous circumstances,’’ she said. “It just changed my world and broadened my view.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.