PLATTSBURGH — It's such a growing trend they had to invent a new word for it: voluntourism.Many are trading in their fun, relaxing vacations for the opportunity to help others, according to several recent surveys.An annual tourism forecast poll by Travelocity indicated that 11 percent of respondents planned to volunteer during their vacations in 2007, up 6 percent from last year.A survey conducted by CheapTickets.com found that 50 percent of respondents would consider taking a vacation for the sole purpose of volunteering.And it's no different here, where the North County Mission of Hope reports interest in its humanitarian-aid journeys to Nicaragua are on the rise."There have been more applications," Mission Leadership Team Executive Secretary Connie Miller said.Since 1998, 361 volunteers have gone on their 23 trips to Latin America — 142 have gone more than once.What they have found in Nicaragua is "extreme poverty right next to wealth," Miller said. "The first (trip) is as much a cultural shock as a person can get."The Mission of Hope has had eighth-graders right up to people in their late 70s participate.Two former volunteers now serve in the Peace Corps.One reason folks forsake fun in the sun for the more rigorous experience of voluntourism is the human connection that happens.One person who has left an impression on Miller during her travels is Magaly Velasquez, an "amazing woman" whose community leadership in Nicaragua has inspired Mission of Hope projects and contributes much to the collaborative effort between the Americans and the people there.Miller said Velasquez has four children of her own and has also taken in two nephews. She cares for those children in addition to her growing sewing business and efforts for Mission of Hope."She has a tremendous amount of work she does, but I've never seen her without a smile," Miller said.That's typical of most people there, she said. Their gratitude is deep and sincere. "They're a very warm, welcoming people, and they like to hug."At Plattsburgh State, the director of the school's alternative-break program said interest has also been high."For students, it's a chance to meet new people, go to a place they've never been to, maybe gain some skills they didn't have," Cori Matthews said of the program, which has been running since 1994.The experiences she organizes — usually seven one-week trips during spring break in addition to three winter excursions — are done in cooperation with Habitat for Humanity and other service organizations.Plattsburgh State student Samantha Robillard said her two-week alternative spring break in Nicaragua this past January was a very different getaway."It was a great experience," she said. "I was able to see things I've never seen in my entire life."Robillard is an education major and said she plans to take advantage of the free summers her career will provide by traveling to do volunteer work.The cost for a Mission of Hope volunteer runs between $1,000 and $1,100, which covers airfare, insurance, food, housing and ground transportation.The Plattsburgh group sends two large contingents of volunteers to Nicaragua yearly: one in February and another around the end of July/beginning of August.A total 54 took part in this winter's experience — along with a honeymoon couple from Quebec who happened to travel on the flight from Montreal with Mission of Hope and were so moved by the tales of the effort that they spontaneously became voluntourists and spent a few days helping the group out.
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