As August grows toward September, the intricacies of Disney World's newest attraction or Kauai's most pristine beach are recounted in rich detail around the water cooler or over the fence as the annual rite of summer is discussed.
What did you do on vacation?For a growing number of service-minded volunteers, the answers are odd, yet intriguing.
American Fork resident Kirk Magelby re-roofed a house. Rayola Andersen of Murray taught English. And thousands like them installed siding, unearthed ancient bones, cleaned mountain trails and dug wells.
Magelby and Anderson are looking to quench a thirst that summertime's 32 oz. sodas can't slake. But thankful hearts, teary eyes and firm handshakes can.
They're an integral part of the "volunteer vacation" movement that drapes pure religion in the cloak of humanitarian service. And it's changing not only the way many Americans plan their summers - but changing their lives in the process.
Two years ago, Anderson and a friend volunteered - and paid for the privilege - to teach English to Chinese students fascinated by American culture. Little did they know that theirs would be the first government-sanctioned volunteer group to enter the communist nation.
The red carpet welcome, complete with bouquets of flowers and TV cameras rolling, was over-whelming.
Contrast that with Magelby's experience in Appalachia the same summer. As his group's caravan snaked its way through Hatfield and McCoy country, he guessed at what the family he was hoping to help would need: a new roof, a bigger porch, a set of stairs maybe. When he finally reached Beatty-ville, Ky., they had a simple but shocking request.
With no indoor plumbing, the family needed an outhouse.
Since 1993, Magelby has taken one of his children each year to "see poverty and deprivation firsthand" through the Appalachian Service Project, run by a Methodist minister who organizes volunteer groups to help residents in several of America's poorest counties.
After a day of "sensitivity training" and instruction in the use of power tools, volunteers are divided into work groups of five or six and assigned a family that has requested assistance. Group members then get to know family members and try to assess their most urgent repair or construction needs.
The project's motto is "warmer, safer and dryer. That's what we do to the homes. These are basic projects to repair or build things most of us just take for granted," Magelby says.
"Some families are very shy and a little reluctant to face the fact that they're receiving some charity help. They're very proud people. But others have kids that really warm up to us" and "by the time the week is over, we're usually very good friends. It's a teary-eyed departure."
While they try to incorporate pieces of a traditional family vacation into the experience, Magelby says both he and his family are better people for having given their time to others.
"Young people leave with a sense of gratitude for how blessed they are to have grown up in the relative ease of suburbia. They leave with an appreciation for hard work and the simple things in life . . . ASP takes me out of my comfort zone and lets me experience a part of this country that most people never see."
For Andersen, a hospice nurse who soothes the suffering, the excursions are a chance to branch out into a different kind of caring.
"Every two years I like to do some humanitarian thing," she says, reflecting on past excursions.
In Mexico, she helped build a school alongside other Utah families who had brought their children to help. In China, her students loved her and the English she was trying to teach them. "I was the first American they had ever seen, let alone met."
Widowed years ago, Andersen doesn't want her age published, but says she encourages people of all ages to go out and serve somebody.
"You can give money, but that doesn't satisfy my real need to contribute something to humanity. I want to contribute me to helping the world. I visit people within my own area and do what I can.
"I give money to the agencies and pay a very hefty fast offering (for LDS humanitarian relief). But money doesn't mean anything to me. It's much more meaningful if I have to go out there and sleep on the ground or soak all dishes in Clorox before I eat and its miserable with roaches running through my bed in order to help build a school. Then I feel like I'm really doing something."
If building schools and outhouses or teaching English doesn't pique the average person's interest, hundreds of other opportunities are available. Listed in many publications under "adventure travel," the programs are as varied as the individual seeking them.
Bookstores, libraries and the Internet all provide lists of organized groups that offer such excursions. Price and length range widely.
One agency in the Caribbean seeks volunteers to walk the beaches at night, looking for new turtle hatchlings so they can be scooped up and save from predators.
Another in Wyoming lets participants of all ages dig for dinosaur bones.
A London agency pairs volunteers with speech-impaired children for a week to go canoeing, climbing, swimming and sailing.
And many states have volunteer trail-guilding and maintenance programs, suited to those who want an outdoor adventure in the mountains.
A local branch of an international agency called CHOICE sends volunteers to many underprivileged countries in South America and the Pacific. Andersen arranged her Mexican school-building excursion through CHOICE.
And the trip won't be her last, by any means.
"I'm going to Bolivia in two years . . . By then I won't be the Relief Society president anymore, and I'll be happy to get out of here."
She's even looking beyond that trip. She told a reporter that she'll take any opportunity to go help somebody else. "Do you want to go? My problem is, I can't get anybody my age to go with me."