A few months ago, Buick offered to sponsor a bucket list trip for my husband and me. While there are dozens of places we’d love to go, many of which involve beaches, lounge chairs, and massages, we knew this was our chance to do something meaningful.

As huge animal lovers, we immediately thought of the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, which we had been hearing about for quite a while. It’s the largest natural habitat refuge in the country and was a natural fit for us because if you check out my blog, you’ll see my prized photo, revealing just how much I adore elephants.

As it turned out, the Elephant Sanctuary holds volunteer days once a month, so we signed up even though I was warned not to expect any kind of photos like that one, which was taken last summer at the Living With Elephants Foundation in Botswana. In fact, we were told there would be no interaction with the animals at all and no guarantees of even seeing them.

That was my first big lesson, and it’s something I’ve really taken to heart. If you’re going to volunteer, you have to remember you are doing it for those who need help. As you realize when you hear the stories about why they need help, that is, truly, a reward in itself.

The thirteen magnificent creatures who call the Elephant Sanctuary home have suffered years of horrific abuse, mostly in circuses and zoos. They can now – finally – live out the rest of their lives doing whatever they want, with 2700 beautiful acres to roam, new friends to bond with and people who tend to their every need, including nutritious food, medicine, and foot soaks.

We learned so much during our visit, making new friends ourselves as we painted and scraped the protective contact wall which safely encourages the elephants to trust their caregivers. We also bonded while removing nails from old boards so they could be used to provide heat for the elephants during the winter.

Although these jobs were far from glamorous, they were vital for providing the best environment for the elephants. In fact, two of those beauties, Tange and Flora, parked themselves close by to make sure we were doing what we were supposed to. Just seeing them there was enough to keep us working hard with smiles on our faces. Their gorgeous presence was a constant reminder of why we were there. It was truly a privilege to help them.

Volunteer vacations are becoming a huge segment of the travel market, and, not surprisingly, boomers are leading the way. Considering our generation’s activist roots, this makes sense. If all of us actually dedicated some of our trips to voluntourism, just think how we could change the world. The sheer numbers would make a huge impact.

Our one day experience, which we followed with four days in Nashville (I’ll be writing about that next) was a great way to get started on what we know will be many volunteer trips.

I’d like to participate in Global Volunteers and Go Eat Give, and, after reading my friend’s story, I want to head to Thailand to spend a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park.

There are opportunities to help all around the world, and what could be better than traveling to do good? Where do you want to volunteer? Where will your journey take you?

Written by