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Time off to save the world

by Patti Lane - Financial Post

Banker John Bell's voice swells with pride when he describes the Honduran latte he discovered on his last vacation. But he's not talking about a coffee. That's what Mr. Bell, 52, laughingly calls the thick brown clay he scraped off his work boots each day after splitting rock and hauling concrete blocks while building houses in a Honduran village last November. Mr. Bell, a vice-president and branch manager with TD Waterhouse Private Client Services in Whitby, Ont., spent a week of his vacation time volunteering with Habitat for Humanity in Siguatepeque, a small farming village in the mountains of the Central American country, where cars are few and most people travel by horseback.

Mr. Bell is part of a growing group of travellers who want to do more than spend their holidays flopped on a beach in the tropics. "I'm past the going-to-a-resort thing. It doesn't interest me anymore," Mr. Bell says.

As the world shrinks and people learn about different needs around the globe, many Canadians want to do more than write a cheque. But with careers, mortgages and families to think about, few can afford to sign up for a long-term commitment. Now, some are using their vacation time to volunteer on a project overseas, from protecting sea turtles in Central America, post-disaster relief in Asia or teaching orphans in Africa. Altruistic globetrotters are more interested in helping a good cause than getting a good tan.

These "voluntourists" end up getting as much out of the project as they put in. "The trip to Honduras was not a rest," says Mr. Bell, who found himself toiling alongside the family that was to live in the new house. "You're working hard the whole week, but you come away feeling absolutely energized and really fulfilled."

A growing number of businesses are beginning to support employees through paid time off and flexible scheduling. Just over half of all Canadian companies offer paid leave to volunteer, ranging from one day a year to two weeks, according to Volunteer Canada, a non-profit agency that helps businesses set up volunteer policies.

"Many companies are using it as a recruiting tool," says Wendy Mitchell, manager of corporate citizenship at Volunteer Canada. Younger people in the workforce in particular are much more socially conscious, she says.

Company support engenders loyalty and loyalty breeds stronger motivation, says Ms. Mitchell. "On a personal level, volunteers develop skills and get an opportunity to network with people completely outside their normal sphere," she says.

Microsoft Canada grants employees 40 hours a year of paid leave to volunteer for a charity of their choice anywhere in the world, says Gavin Thompson, Microsoft's director of corporate citizenship. "From a corporate standpoint, it's a great attract-or of potential talent."

Employees return with renewed zeal. "They're charged up again and passionate about their work," he says. "Their productivity typically shoots up, they seem more engaged and they have a new view on things."

Microsoft sales manager Raj Joshi, travelled to his family's ancestral village in northern India to rebuild a school for the community of 500, adding vacation time to his one week of paid leave. Student enrolment in Falwadi has doubled and children can now complete Grade 10. "The biggest impact I see is on the girls, who used to drop out because the old school ended at Grade 6," Mr. Joshi says. He calls the experience "transforming."

Mr. Joshi worked with the village council to ensure the community can keep the school running. "I've learned some of the intricacies of dealing with government and different people and cultures. You learn how to work with people and you learn the long-term impact of things."

These are not luxury holidays. Mr. Bell and his team in Honduras shared basic rooms at a college dormitory and dined in simple restaurants. Travellers typically pay their own airfare, plus a fee to cover local travel, food and accommodation.

Marlon Arenas, an IT specialist with KPMG, spent three months in the Philippines last winter in a tiny village of about 50 homes built for families who used to live in the slums.

Through his Toronto church, Mr. Arenas volunteered to teach English to teachers and children in Gawad Kalinga. His company donated $1,500 to help cover his costs and gave him an unpaid leave with the assurance that his job would be waiting for him when he got back.

"I'm used to training professionals, so it was a big challenge," Mr. Arenas says. "But it forced me to go out of my comfort zone and jump into something new."

Mario Paron, 43, KPMG's chief human resources officer, says the company recognizes that employees on such trips return with a fresh perspective. They also develop skills that help with presentations, leadership and team work.

"When the volunteers learn these skills in a non-traditional work environment, it can be very powerful and easily replicated back in the workforce," Mr. Paron says. And when the volunteer work involves different cultures, there's a learning and sensitivity in dealing with people from different backgrounds that is invaluable when they return to work."

KPMG tax partner Chuck Ormrod, 49, used three weeks of vacation time to travel to a small village in Kenya last year. Mr. Ormrod and a team from KPMG set up a computer lab at an orphanage for 560 former street kids in Ndalani. His company donated 60 used laptops and by the end of his trip to Africa, the computers were installed and every child had learned basic computer skills. "What a rewarding experience that was," he says.

"This is not a vacation," Mr. Ormrod says. "It's a very intense, exhausting commitment. But there's a huge amount of personal benefit that you get."

 

 

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