After Ben DiFrancesco and Melissa Jen tie the knot on June 11, they'll jet to the tropics, but not just for the beach. After a week in Costa Rica, they're going to Honduras with a group they put together for Habitat for Humanity. For these two, getting married is about giving back.
"We’ve worked with Habitat before," said Jen, "and during our engagement, as we talked about the future together, we said, 'Wouldn't it be awesome if we could do a Habitat trip or a similar trip every year?'"
When it came down to scheduling that yearly service project and a honeymoon, the Philadelphia couple, both 25, decided to combine them. They’re part of a special category of brides and grooms, those who make sure their big day benefits others.
There are lots of ways to make a wedding charitable. In lieu of gifts, couples can register for charity donations at any number of websites. Some catering companies will work with local food banks to distribute leftovers. Wedding gowns can be donated to fundraising sales held by Brides Against Breast Cancer (www.bridesagainstbreastcancer.org).
But the most hands-on givers are the volunteers. While some honeymooners might cringe at the idea of missing their mai tais and massages, for others volunteering is the perfect way to start a life together.
Of course, on a volunteer honeymoon, you’re not alone together. DiFrancesco recently completed Habitat leadership training, and as the trip coordinator he selected the dozen-or-so members of their group. One of Jen's bridesmaids will come along, as well as the priest who is marrying them.
"We pitched the idea to people who we really wanted to come, but after that we left it open and let people self-select," said DiFrancesco. "Neither of us framed it as some exclusive honeymoon," added Jen. "We just said, 'This is a service trip with Habitat and we'd love to have you, as a friend, be there with us."
Though amenities can be few, and the work hard, volunteers with a taste for adventure find the journey offers an intimate look at a host community. As an added bonus, costs such as air fare and program fees are tax deductible.
"How often can you tax-deduct part of your honeymoon?" said Teresa Allen, 38, who volunteered in Tanzania after her 2005 wedding to husband Andrew. "We saved for a long time for such a big trip, but got some of it back at the next tax cycle, which was nice."
The Allens worked in the rural village of Pommern with a group called Global Volunteers. They helped build a library, checked in patients at the local clinic, and Teresa taught an impromptu computer class for kids.
Unlike DiFrancesco and Jen, the Allens didn’t know the other members of their group at the beginning of the trip. The rest of the volunteers were amused to find out they were honeymooners, and gave them the nicest room in the mission house where they stayed. Teresa chuckles remembering the "honeymoon suite," which came with a private bathroom, but without running water.
The two have always shared a love of travel. "About a month after we met we got our passports stamped together," says Teresa, "and we just never stopped."
When she brought home an article written by a friend who had been on a service trip, Andrew's interest was perked. "It really tapped into my passion for travel," said Andrew, 37. "She wanted to do the volunteering, and I really wanted to get to Africa, and we met halfway."
At Andrew’s urging, they tacked on a trek up Mount Kilimanjaro to the end of the trip. After almost a month in Africa, they returned home to St. Paul, Minnesota, feeling they’d seen Tanzania from an insider's perspective.
"The best way to immerse yourself in another culture is as a volunteer," said Teresa. "Because otherwise you're just a tourist and that's, in my view, kind of voyeuristic and doesn't give you the full impact."
Andrew enthusiastically described making the rounds with the village doctor, who was also the dentist and the meat inspector. "He'd be working in the clinic and then there would be a fresh slaughter and he'd have to go inspect the meat for parasites," he said. "The traditional honeymoon wouldn't see too much of that, and it was a good experience."
Immersion is one of the core goals of the trips, said Michele Gran, 56, who co-founded Global Volunteers almost three decades ago. "These communities invite us in like families," she says. "I'm not overstating that and, even all these years later, it takes my breath away."
The challenge for many American travelers, she said, is to accept a role as part of the chain reaction of service. An entire project won't be completed in the time you are there, and your role is to provide hands-on help, not advice.
"We have to resist that natural temptation we have as Americans to jump right in and try to problem solve everything," said Gran. "And you might say to yourself, what can one person do in one or two weeks? But the truth is that the strength of a project is in its continuity."
Flexibility is also key for the volunteer honeymooner. For example, DiFrancesco and Jen's Habitat group may arrive in Honduras to find a nearly completed house, or a hole in the ground that still needs a foundation. On another of their trips, the location changed from Mexico to Honduras last minute because of the spread of swine flu.
"In every trip we've done, something has thrown a wrench in it one way or another," said DiFrancesco. "If you're not flexible, you're going to cause yourself a lot of stress."
They key, say the couples, is to choose an organization with a long history in the field. Names like Habitat for Humanity and Global Volunteers, as well as Earth Watch, United Planet, and the American Red Cross, came up commonly in discussion.
Those who have volunteered add that honeymooners should be prepared for tasks that ask them to work separately as well as ones during which they will be together.
But for those who are game, a honeymoon can be the chance to fly halfway across the world, to a location you might not normally have time to visit, and the shared spirit of service can deepen the bonds of a new marriage.
"The whole thing really tied into our view of ourselves as a couple," says Teresa Allen. "We wrote into our vows that we were not only committing to each other but to a life of travel and learning and service."