Holiday Gift Ideas for the Volunteer Traveler

By Sheryl Kane

I recently listened to George Carlin’s routine on stuff on My favorite line is, “Your house is just a place for your stuff with a cover on it.” I reacted with laughter and by throwing out my holiday gift list. The subject of Carlin’s bit was a traveler going to Hawaii on a trip and then to Maui and then to the west side of Maui and the dilemma of what to pack and take, when and where were particularly funny to me because I’d been creating a huge list of specialized gifts for volunteer and immersion travelers this year. Listening to Carlin and throwing out that list helped me create the best gift list ever.

We all have way too much stuff. I have stuff at my mother’s, in the attic, in my office at home and my office at work. Everywhere I go I seem to have a pile of my stuff. When I really thought about it, I realized there wasn’t really anyone on my list who needed the stuff I was giving them, except maybe the growing children whose sizes are still rapidly changing. I left growing kids on my list and will buy them clothing in the sizes requested by their parents.

Otherwise, each and every one of my gifts this year is lovingly and personally selected with meaning and significance. My goal is to definitely make a difference and not just add more stuff to the pile. Years ago, I worked in the public relations and direct marketing departments of Save the Children Federation. They have some wonderful holiday gifts in every imaginable price range.

Here are some of my favorites in the under $50 category:

  • For $10 infant/newborn gift package that includes diapers, wipes and clothing;
  • $20 provides a child with an emergency evacuation backpack or an emergency hygiene kit;
  • $40, purchase a goat for a family in Ethiopia.

For every gift you select, a gift card is sent to notify the person being honored and gifted.

Save the Children’s five most popular gift items for 2010 are:

  • Educate a girl for $65 and keep her in school, with the books and supplies that she needs for one full year.
  • In the United States, $30 buys healthy snacks for kids in school and $30 delivers a soccer ball to an impoverished area where toys and supplies are rare.
  • You can also provide ready to use food for $70 and $100 provides badly needed water in rural areas.

My friend Marta has a wonderful tradition in her home. Every year she selects a different organization. “I look for groups that support other women, by selling their products or providing money and services to support new businesses,” says Marta, age 49, single mother of three daughters. This year she’s supporting gifts made by women in Nepal for sale through and took a trip. Volunteer vacations can be a very inexpensive way to visit new places, to get involved, and give back. Particularly in the United States, many volunteer vacations are free, with participants paying only for the transportation, and often the trip is tax deductible.

Casting For Recovery (CFR) provides fly fishing retreats for women who have or have had breast cancer. These no-cost retreats are offered at various locations across the country and promote and support both mental and physical healing. CFR needs female volunteers over the age of 21 to work as weekend retreat staff; river helpers, greeters, and cooks. (

Volunteer with Adventures in Preservation to support community development and save architectural heritage around the globe: Preserve a historic landmark in Gloucester, Virginia or renovate classrooms in Morocco.

Clear hiking trails on Catalina Island or volunteer with the Wolf Recovery project while visiting the Grand Canyon — the options are endless, and so are the benefits to the volunteer, the visitor, and the visited.

Volunteer vacations are group trips, so you don’t need to know someone else who wants to do what you want to do – you can follow your passion. Just remember, when traveling or hanging out at home, you really don’t need much stuff. The most important things you can take with you on your next trip are an open mind, a big smile, and a willingness to help, learn, connect, and