Although we find ourselves in an unusually challenging time, I’m discovering it also provides us with a unique opportunity to re-evaluate our lives and our choices. I have been speaking to different people about travel plans, and whether our current economy has brought about a change in their vacation planning. One recurrent theme, both surprising and gratifying, is that many people are now choosing vacations that involve helping others.

Some people have talked about going overseas to do volunteer work. I checked the Internet and found dozens of Web sites for volunteer work abroad. You can spend from one to 12 weeks or more in countries such as Brazil, China, Costa Rica, Russia, Tanzania and Thailand. What a great way to really get immersed in another culture and help people at the same time. Some of the ways to provide assistance in these countries include volunteering your time and skills in orphanages, schools, building new structures, running environmental studies, and on and on. Of course, there are costs involved in getting to these places, such as transportation and immunization to name just a few, but some of them are tax deductible, and some organizations offer discounts and have other ways to help defray costs. Many organizations cover food, some temporary health care, ground transportation, etc. There are numerous Web sites, and you are bound to find one that matches your talents and interests and suits your budget.

For those who want to say stateside there are also many ways to volunteer. Homeless shelters, wildlife conservation, energy conservation, green living, marine ecology, and the Special Olympics are just a few of the many organizations that always appreciate volunteer help. There are also many animal sanctuaries where you can spend time volunteering.

I visited Best Friends Animal Sanctuary near Kanab, Utah. Besides the natural beauty of the land, I was very impressed with the many volunteers, and the varied tasks they were performing. Best Friends has accommodations for volunteers, although they are usually booked far in advance. Most volunteers stay in Kanab, which is about 5 miles from the sanctuary. What a great opportunity to work with animals of all kinds, not to mention meet new people with similar interests.

There are many other animal sanctuaries and rescues around the state and country that always seek volunteer help. Don’t forget all the local animal shelters, too. In this economy donations of money have drastically decreased, but donating time is always priceless. My friend, a recently unemployed photographer, volunteered at her local Humane Society. Although her original plan was to walk the dogs so they could get some exercise and one-to-one time with a human, she is now putting her photography skills to use by photographing the animals for their Web site.

Volunteering in a field completely new to you is a great way to develop new skills and discover new parts of you that may have not been otherwise explored. I find it heartening that in this difficult time that we are all going through, when the natural inclination is to circle the wagons, many people are turning this time into something positive by reaching out. Remember that quote from Abe Lincoln: “To ease another’s heartache is to forget one’s own.” I really think he was on to something!

Carole can be reached at Caroleorlin@yahoo.com