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Vacation as a volunteer

Programs offer an opportunity to give something back during your time away from work and everyday life. "Today" travel editor Peter Greenberg reports.
/ Source: TODAY

Tired of spending vacations sitting around a pool with nothing to do? Well this is an alternative that in most cases the whole family can do.

Nine thousand feet high up in the Andes mountain range — a place of tremendous physical beauty — lies Peru's maximum security prison in Ayachucho — home to murderers, drug dealers and other violent criminals. Eighteen year-old Amanda McCullough — a recent Atlanta high school graduate — is checking in. She's not a prisoner. And she's not there to see the prisoners, but she's there to teach their children. 

“Every weekday morning I go to this prison and I take care of the kids that live here with their mothers. It’s really, really fine, but really challenging. The kids had never had any kind of education at all,” says McCullough.

Inmates' children under the age of four years old live at the prison. It offers no formal schooling, so it’s up to volunteers like Amanda to teach them songs, show them their numbers, play with them and teach them about life outside the prison walls.

“The thing that I try to do is be positive and make them laugh and smile and give them something to look forward to every day. If they can look forward to us coming, you know, for those four hours every morning makes their day a little better,” says McCullough. 

Amanda volunteers with a group called Cross Cultural Solutions  — or CCS. How did her parents handle the assignment? "Hey mom! Hey dad! I'm goin' to Peru, goin' to prison. See ya later."

“Yeah (laughter). They were pretty supportive. They trusted CCS — the program — so they weren't too worried. But they were a little shocked at first,” she explains. 

She and nine other volunteers traveled to Peru to learn the language and the culture, while helping the locals. Ayacucho means — "the place of the dead" — a city of extraordinary poverty with a history of extreme political violence.

Rudy Anyosa runs the program. “I feel that Ayacucho needs a lot of help and I'm glad to work with volunteers who are eager to help us in trying to relieve the poverty situation in Ayacucho,” he explains.

Some volunteers work at an orphanage for disabled children. Audrey Wintory is from  Englewood, Colorado. “This experience has been a dream come true. I feel like I've learned so much. I feel like I've actually helped. And I feel like every day I'm actually growing,” says Wintory.

Others help street children. Today they're painting the facility that houses the children's activities. But it's not just about the physical painting; it's about the emotional bonding that helps both the kids and the volunteers alike.

“Every time that I wake up every morning, I feel like I have a reason to be here and to be with these kids,” says Leira Maldonado.

Sherry Stephens is volunteering here for the second time  — helping out at a health clinic.

“I don't know if any vacation that I take in the future will ever be the same as what I did in the past. I don't know if I could go to a country and just visit. Maybe I could, but I don't think I'd get the same enjoyment out of it that I used to. To me it's just more important to help out,” says Stephens.

On weekends the volunteers explore Ayucucho, including hiking in the Andes mountains. They enjoy the breathtaking views out of town, but it is their work in town that replenishes their souls.

Stephens explains, “You can't come on one of these trips, do one of these vacations and expect that you're gonna change the world. You have to understand that it is holding the child's hand and making a difference in that child's life and putting a baby to sleep or helping the fellow who's overwhelmed in the records department, giving them a break and if more people could pitch in that way and there were more baby steps taken, of course, there would be more of an impact on the world.”

“I'm gonna take back a lot of things when I go home from this. And just maybe hopefully one of those little kids at the orphanage will just remember that American that came in and played with them or that taught 'em a little something,' or that helped, I think. I think I'll think about that for a long time,” says Audrey Wintory.