There are no chocolate mints on the pillows for travelers on one of HaveHeart’s volunteer vacations. There are no multi-story casinos, no theme parks, no shopping malls, no neon signs luring money-wielding tourists.

Instead there are hillsides dotted with homes made of wood and tin scraps, children scavenging through the local dump and little electricity.

There are also hospitable villagers, Mayan ruins, solar powered outdoor showers, waterfalls and miles of lush rainforest. This is just some of what is available through HaveHeart’s volunteer vacations.

Cape Elizabeth residents Lisa Johnson and Karen Fisher send their first HaveHeart vacation group to Zihua, Mexico, March 25, where volunteers will work in a school for underprivileged children. HaveHeart will outline their volunteer opportunities at the Cape Elizabeth Community Center on Feb. 8.

HaveHeart participants step inside a culture, interacting with native people and contributing positively to their lives, rather than just peering through the lens of tourism, said Fisher and Johnson. Vacations are offered in Costa Rica, Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Guatemala.

“A lot of these places are similar, they’re remote, impoverished. They don’t have the very basic things we take for granted,” said Fisher.

Fisher and Johnson were inspired by Mainer Hanley Denning who founded the Safe Passage program in Guatemala City. The Safe Passage program provides schooling and education opportunities for impoverished children who, instead of going to school, were foraging through the garbage to help support their families.

“The parents don’t encourage (school)” said Johnson, “they’d rather them rummage through the dump and find things to eat and sell.” In Guatemala, dump permits are issued, said Johnson. Many families living in the slums surrounding the dump make their living there.

Denning now lives in Guatemala for at least part of the year running the program. The program, begun in 1999, employs 23 Guatemalans and relies on volunteers from organizations like HaveHeart. Volunteers in Guatemala City assist teachers in the classroom, cook lunches and help kids with their homework.

After discovering Denning’s work, Johnson and Fisher knew they had to help. And the best resource they had was people interested in helping. “We can’t go and live there,” she said, “so let’s send people down.”

They fervently researched other volunteering operations in Latin America because it was the most accessible area. They gathered what they thought was a varied selection of volunteering opportunities like teaching English to village children, working on a nature reserve, or helping with theater camp activities.

This relief work is the bread and butter of volunteer vacationing, but it doesn’t offer the glitz and glam of luxury vacations. There are no Hiltons, Sheratons, Holiday Inns or even a Motel 6. There is netting around the beds in many locations for protection from the bugs. “You have to shake off what’s comfortable for you, redefine what’s comfortable,” said Johnson.

While staying with a family in the Dominican Republic, Johnson gained a new appreciation for indoor plumbing. “The kids called it the palace,” said Johnson. The Yabacoa excursion offers complete immersion by living with a family in the 100-person village. Villagers share their modest homes because they know volunteers are helping build a school, which will teach skilled trades to their children. Most villagers work doing unskilled labor.

Johnson and Fisher have visited all seven program sites. Fisher recently returned from Costa Rica where she stayed at a ranch on 265 acres of rainforest.

While there, she helped construct an outdoor shower, with a rock mosaic style floor and solar paneled roof to heat the water. Once completed, she tested out her work. The shower was on the edge of the ranch, one side open with only the protection of the rainforest, the other side was a door built with bamboo and cob, a stucco-like cementing agent. “I felt like I was having a Calgon moment,” said Fisher.

The ranchers in Costa Rica, former Peace Corps volunteers, employ 11 of the 100 local villagers. They teach the villagers about forest regeneration and building composting toilets, because many of them don’t have plumbing. “All the places that we’re trying to connect with are trying to conserve and preserve the prosperity of their land,” said Fisher.

HaveHeart is offering 11 group vacations during 2006, but trips are available at any time during the year. Their first informational meeting will be held at Cape Elizabeth Community Center Feb. 8 at 7:30 p.m. For more information on HaveHeart call 632-5859 or send an e-mail to [email protected]

HaveHeart, will travelKaren Fisher, left and Lisa Johnson, co-founders of Haveheart volunteer vacations.

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