Destin-Nation USA: Voluntouring America

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America is blessed with such an incredible diversity of cities that travelers sometimes fall into the trap of taking towns at face value – seeing only the museums and sites along the most well-worn tourist trails. Aside from offering a chance to give back, "voluntourism" presents service-minded travelers with an opportunity to really get to know a town, to move past talking about the weather and have an earnest heart to heart.
America is blessed with such an incredible diversity of cities that travelers sometimes fall into the trap of taking towns at face value – seeing only the museums and sites along the most well-worn tourist trails. Aside from offering a chance to give back, voluntourism presents service-minded travelers with an opportunity to really get to know a town, to move past talking about the weather and have an earnest heart to heart.

On July 4, U.S. citizens all over the world celebrated their country's past. Collective nostalgia is wonderful (though hangovers aren't), but the stormy present will not be ignored. Thanks to the economic crisis, many communities across America are struggling. Thanks to the founding fathers, many people are in a position to help.

Helping, it should be noted, doesn't require sacrificing the fun of travel. To the contrary, a traveler busy getting his hands dirty is a traveler without a hand free to check his Blackberry. Volunteering also offers the opportunity to meet new people from all walks of life. What is endlessly astounding about the U.S. is not its scope, but the diversity of the people that live between the shining seas.

There are countless worthy causes in every city in America, so what follows should only be considered suggestions oriented towards visitors to some of the country's more major cities.

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Destin-Nation USA: Voluntouring America

Washington is a city in constant transition, with people flying into and out of town on the drifting winds of the government. But, outside of the Georgetown scene and the suburbs, more than 17.6% of the 600,000 people who call the District home live below the poverty line. (That’s compared to 14.3% nationally in 2009.)

After taking in the monuments and museums (most of which are free), check out some ways to give back to the people of our capital.

Miriam’s Kitchen was founded in 1983, and named for the biblical figure – Moses’ sister, who was forced to live as an outsider because of a sin she committed. The charity, which reaches out to the District’s impoverished through programs like meal service, art classes, and a working café, aims to integrate those who are isolated like Miriam. There are many ways to volunteer, but the easiest for travelers will be to pull a shift serving or prepping meals.

So Others Might Eat (SOME) is another homeless outreach in D.C., founded in 1970 by an interfaith group of priests, ministers and lay people. Its programs include meal service, substance abuse programs, homebound elderly outreach, a medical clinic plus affordable housing and job training programs. Check out opportunities specifically geared for kids.

For a more comprehensive list of volunteer opportunities, visit One Brick. The D.C. branch of this national service organization is a hub for a broad spectrum of one-day projects.

After the recent flooding in Nashville, the city was in need of a boost. Even when the waters are at bay 1 in 8 of the city’s residents struggle with poverty.

To get the lay of the land, check out Hands On Nashville, which networks volunteers (more than 200,000) with 737 nonprofits, schools, government agencies, faith-based organizations, civic groups and businesses.

An easy way to dig in would be with programs at the Nashville Rescue Mission and the Nashville Homeless Power Project. The latter is an organization of homeless and formerly homeless persons who work for affordable housing, living wage jobs, healthcare and food security for those who need it.

Nashville Rescue Mission needs people to serve meals, sort donated items, speak at chapel, tutor, and help on special projects like painting, cleaning, construction etc. At the Nashville Homeless Power Project they’re seeking people who can do data entry or teach basic computer skills to the homeless.

After Hurricane Katrina sacked New Orleans, the city was inundated with well-meaning volunteers from across the country eager to help the city's struggling residents. New Orleans' tourism industry was, and still largely is, dominated by voluntourism – a fact that was not lost on major hotels: Marriott hotels in NOLA are still offering a "Spirit to Serve" package that includes a room, a boxed lunch, and a volunteer day working with Habitat for Humanity.

Habitat is a massive charity with a huge footprint worldwide, but it is a particularly important organization in New Orleans both because the city's housing stock took such a beating during the storm, and because a lot of the city's residents have traditionally lived in low-income neighborhoods. A particularly worthy Habitat project is the Musician's Village, which provides housing to some of the cities famed musicians, who were struggling to stay afloat after the deluge.

But, there's something to be said about splurging while on a NOLA vacay too – call it retail therapy. New Orleans needs money desperately, which justifies splashing out a little bit, especially on music and food, two things the city has historically done very well.

Head to Dallas to welcome a newcomer to the Land of Opportunity and give them a Texas-sized helping hand.

As the ninth most populous city in the country, Dallas boasts a large immigrant community, with about 43% of the population being Hispanic or Latino and about 25% being foreign-born. 

The largest secular volunteer organization in Dallas, the International Rescue Committee, offers refugees support with finding a furnished home, learning English, obtaining legal services, and rent assistance. Volunteers only need to commit to 2-3 hours a week for 3-6 months, be it mentoring a family and helping them assimilate to the community, or bettering immigrants' English to help them a job.

A similar organization is Refugee Services of Texas, Inc. Volunteers here assist refugees and victims of trafficking in finding a home, food, clothing and furniture, and accessing programs and benefits for which they are eligible.

For other chances to aid to the immigrant population, one of the better resources is the Volunteer Center of North Texas website. With an extensive list of hundreds of volunteer positions, the site even indicates how many volunteers are needed for any particular cause.

Chicago draws thousands of tourists every day for its many attractions: August's Lollapalooza music festival, the infamous (and wildly unhealthy) deep-dish pizza and its spectacularly puzzling sculpture dubbed "The Bean." While all of these are certainly worth seeing, do-gooders may also want to check out the Chicago Food Depository, which distributes 66 million pounds of food to 650 soup kitchens, pantries, and shelters in Cook County. Even better, the depository doesn't require any training — their website posts immediate volunteer needs in upcoming weeks with information on how to sign up. 

Chicago is one of the cities that have been hardest-hit by the recession and the accompanying rise of unemployment. In early 2009, the depository conducted research with Feeding America that concluded that nearly 678,000 people rely on emergency and supplemental food from the Food Depository - a 36% increase from a 2006 study. Furthermore, about 37% of the people the depository serves are under 18.

For more Chicago-based organizations, visit Chicago Cares to find a volunteer opportunity that suits your interests. 

The Bay Area has always been popular among tourists looking for an exotic, but domestic, getaway. San Francisco has nurtured many small, distinct communities, giving the city a metropolitan yet neighbor-oriented outlook. The unfortunate downside of thriving neighborhoods is that it can be easy to overlook the pockets of the city that are suffering from neglect.

Tourists looking to give back while having a good time – very much the ethos of the city – should head to Glide Memorial Church, a spiritual but not strictly religious program that runs an excellent soup kitchen. For all its wealth, San Francisco has a severe homelessness problem and a little food goes a long way. And, Glide has an amazing show choir, so lucky tourists may get treated to an incredibly joyful performance.

Another group to consider working with is the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence, an eccentric group of men (some gay, but not all) who dress as nuns and perform acts of good will. The sisters are always having a good time have been an institution in the city for decades. Check their calendar for events. 

Yelp is probably the best resource for volunteer opportunities.

It's always a good time to visit NYC. In summer, arts and culture fanatics will be sated by countless outdoor concerts (not to mention Broadway), as well as the new addition to the High Line. Foodies will delight in summertime specials, and fashion fans need not look farther than SoHo all year round. 

Visitors ready to touch the Big Apple's seeds can hook up with MillionTreesNYC, a citywide program that aims to plant and care for one million trees across the five boroughs over the next decade in order to turn NYC into an "urban forest." The next event is in October.  

Or, volunteer through City Harvest, a New York institution founded in 1982 that feeds 300,000 New Yorkers each week. 1.5 million New Yorkers live in poverty, and City Harvest delivers food 24/7. 

Or, just as importantly, head downtown. On September 12, the 9/11 Memorial will open to the public. Tour the space, learn about what's been happening at Ground Zero for the past 10 years and – it can't be over emphasized – donate, donate, donate. 


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