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Why Voluntourism?

Voluntourism. That is a word that we have all heard tossed around in travel circles over the past few years. I never really understood why someone would sacrifice precious vacation days and spend money to go somewhere and volunteer.

Until I did it.

What started as a way for my 14-year-old son to earn a Boy Scout merit badge turned into a memory that he and I will share for a lifetime. Last month, we had the privilege of helping Michigan Cares for Tourism, a nonprofit group focused on cleaning up and restoring Michigan's parks.

Sunday, we boarded a motorcoach with about 20 other volunteers. Some were students, some were professionals in the travel industry, all were there to help. Our first activity was a dinner cruise through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore. When we arrived, we were all handed our registration bags and a colored bandana. It became a team-building activity and a great icebreaker looking for the people with the same color bandana, as those would be our teammates for the project the next day. We were split into teams of 10 to 20 people and our jobs were kept secret until we arrived at Fayette Historic State Park on Monday.

It was an early start, as we all shuffled onto the buses in our work boots and warm clothes (this was October in Michigan's Upper Peninsula) and, of course, our bandanas. Yellow, I'm looking for yellow, and coffee. Please let there be coffee! We arrived a few minutes late to the park, because we missed the entrance. The sign was down, and we realized quickly that there was a lot of work to be done.

One hundred thirty-five volunteers filed off the buses and made our way down to the historic buildings, where, thank God, there was coffee and breakfast waiting for us. We quickly found our groups, were assigned project leaders, and were given our tasks for the day. Some were going to be painting fences and houses, some would be replacing rotting wooden siding on outbuildings, some others would be placing wire mesh inside the historic hotel to get it ready for plaster. There was cleaning to do and the sign to replace, and one team even went searching for artifacts throughout the site. Yellow, what's yellow's job? We were on one of the clearing teams. Our job was to clear debris and small trees within the site lines of three of the buildings. Looking at the area that we were to clear, the job looked daunting, but we took it one tree and bush at a time. Eight hours and about 300 trees later (according to my son), we could see and walk between all of the buildings.

As we met for dinner on the grounds of the park, which we just helped to keep beautiful for tourists to visit for years to come, we all had such a sense of accomplishment and camaraderie. We were exhausted, filthy and rain-soaked. We had accomplished in one day what would have taken the DNR staff three years to accomplish, and we were all smiling ear to ear. I stood there, a proud mom, as my son received recognition for being the hardest (and youngest) worker for the day. I am not an emotional person, but tears welled up in my eyes as I thought about this moment in time that we shared, just the two of us: This lifetime memory that would not have been possible if I had not been open to this word—voluntourism.

I have a different philosophy about "sacrificing" my precious vacation days now.

When's the next project?

Written by Misty Martinchek, marketing director of Shepler's Mackinac Island Ferry.


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