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Some do 'give back' vacations

Published July 10. 2010 09:00AM

Some take a vacation to see the world.

Some go seeking new adventures.

Others just want to get away and do nothing but relax.

Then there are people like my friends Martha and Hugh who put an altruistic twist to the meaning of "vacation."

My friends schedule at least one "give back" vacation each year.

It's hard to think of their give back trips as a vacation because the work they do is hard manual labor. It wouldn't be far-fetched to compare their arduous labors to that of working on a chain gang.

In fact, working on a chain gang, of sorts, was how they spent two days of their June service vacation at Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina.

Both Hugh and Martha were part of a crew working to do Appalachian Trail repair. Those who hike the Appalachian Trail will often mention how difficult it is to climb the steep mountains.

Well, picture doing that while carrying shovels, a pick ax, clean-up equipment and quarts of water. The steep climb was actually the easy part, compared to the rest of the days.

Hugh spent back-breaking hours using a chain saw to clear heavy vegetation and a pickax to dig up deep roots, hitting rock more times than not. Martha joined in the hard physical labor, picking up fallen logs and hauling them away in a wheel barrel.

Hour after hour they labored in temperatures that climbed above 90.

"I always dreamed of doing the Appalachian Trail, but I think this cured me for a while," said Hugh.

They admit, though, that they knew exactly what they were signing up for when they volunteered to be part of the Sierra Club sponsored trip.

"Sierra Club Magazine spells out each service trip and tells exactly what is required," said Martha.

Primarily, requirements include strong bodies, good health and a desire to help the environment.

They selected the North Carolina trip, they said, because it also involved kayaking to clean up waterways. Since both are strong paddlers and ardent environmentalists, picking that trip was a natural for them.

"We have a feeling of satisfaction when we see the way a place looks after we leave it, compared to how we found it," said Martha.

Partners in life as well as in their environmental work, Hugh and Martha have been doing service trips since 2005, sometimes doing two a year.

They've worked on removing Brazilian pepper trees from Ocala National Forest, worked on several projects in New York's Spanish Harlem, and tackled the tough job of removing a barbed wire fence at Steen's Mountain Wilderness Service in Oregon.

All these so-called vacations were hard work, and all were done at their own expense.

In addition, they've done service projects at architectural digs in Colorado and Maui, Hawaii. While it sounds a bit glamourous, it was all "grunt work" in Hawaii, using chain saws to help clear what was once a native Hawaiian village.

"It was hotter than Hades," said Hugh. "But there are always perks to any service project," Martha adds, telling about whale watching and other adventures.

They both say one never knows what will happen when you volunteer.

Sometimes you'll have an unexpected adventure.

Or, you might even meet your soul mate.

That's what happened seven years ago when Martha volunteered to help at the local wildlife center.

The work, again, was not glamourous, often involving cleaning out animal cages. But it was there that she met Hugh who shares her love of nature and her commitment to volunteer work.

Ever since then, they've traveled the road of life together, making sure they "give back" for all the ways in which they have been blessed.

They recommend that anyone in good health with a giving heart might want to explore the possibility of a Sierra Club service trip.

"Each month, Sierra Magazine publishes a list of service trips to national and international destinations. "It's easy to find something to suit your special interests," said Martha.

Hugh and Martha aren't my only friends who do "give back vacations." Some go on missionary trips, working to build roads and schools in third world countries. Others work building homes near and far for Habitat for Humanity.

Years back, I first learned of Habitat for Humanity trips when I heard that the Rev. Doris Bray had spent her vacation working on a construction crew to build a home for the needy. I was told she slept in a tent on the ground and wondered how she could do that after a hard day's labor.

I didn't know her at the time but I resolved to meet that incredible woman. I found her to be every bit as caring as I thought she would be. For the past ten years, I've been blessed to call the Palmerton woman my close friend.

This fall, my daughter Andrea and her family are traveling to Peru where part of their "give back vacation" will be picking potatoes with migrant families.

"I want my children to know about the hardships many families face," she said, "and I want them to learn to be caring and compassionate."

There are a lot of caring people working to make the world a better place.

Cutting down dead trees, pounding nails in a roof or picking potatoes might not sound like monumental things. But when the result of all that volunteer labor is put together, it paints a picture of caring that speaks volumes.

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