Skip to main content

North Hills Monthly

Voluntourism a Positive Way to Spend Vacation Time

Nov 29, 2019 01:02PM ● By Kathleen Ganster

Photo courtesy of La Roche

The word “vacation” might conjure up visions of warm, sunny beaches or slopes of pristine snow. For others it might mean cities with several museums and art galleries or endless shopping. But for a growing number of people, “vacation” means the opportunity to serve others through mission work, often called voluntourism.

Mike Weiss, an orthopedic surgeon from Wexford, volunteers every year with Operation Walk  Pittsburgh. 

“It’s the best part of my year. I always wanted to do something like this and when my kids were in college, I finally got the opportunity to give back to folks who had no one else to help them,” he said. 

Weiss serves as the co-medical director of the nonprofit that provides free total joint replacements to those who can’t afford them or that don’t have access to these procedures. The local chapter was founded in 2008 by Weiss’ colleague, Anthony DiGioia III. 

“When Tony asked me, I jumped at the chance,” Weiss said. Their first mission trip was in 2009 and this past October, they celebrated their 10th anniversary trip. Since that first mission, the group has replaced 538 joints—hips and knees—for 428 patients in Cuba, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. 

It takes 60 to 70 volunteers to make each mission trip possible.

“Most of our staff are clinicians in all areas—surgeons, nurses, physical therapists, anesthetists—but we also have people who translate and a small group of people who do humanitarian work outside of the hospital,” Weiss said. Volunteers range in age from teens through retirement, and each person is responsible for their own transportation and lodging. 

Though there are some, like Weiss, who have volunteered for several years, others come and go so Operation Walk seeks new volunteers for each trip.

“About 30 to 35 percent are new volunteers,” he explained. “People’s lives change, things come up; they may not be able to volunteer, while others find they have the opportunity. 

“It is so rewarding because you are helping people who are truly disabled and have no other options,” he added. “And they are so appreciative—they don’t complain, and everyone says, ‘Thank you.’” 

For more information including volunteering opportunities, visit www.operationwalkpgh.org.

Steve Williams of Richland Township has used his vacation time to volunteer with Hosanna Industries on a number of occasions. Now retired, Williams worked in the IT department of a global insurance company. 

Hosanna Industries is a local nonprofit based in Richland and Rochester that provides home repairs to those unable and/or who cannot afford to complete the work themselves. While much of their work is in the Greater Pittsburgh area, Hosanna also aids in other regions in the U.S., as well as internationally following catastrophic events. 

“They also do blitz builds—building an entire home in less than a week,” said Williams. “I've participated in two blitz builds, in Freedom and Sandy Lake, PA, and spent a week with Hosanna in Joplin, MO helping rebuild homes destroyed by a tornado.”  

Hosanna depends on volunteers to assist on many fronts, according to Director of Creative Operations Emily Cadenhead. 

“There is a wide variety of projects at Hosanna. They include, but are not limited to, campus cleanup days, roofing, siding, drywall, flooring, painting, and building new homes. Sometimes volunteers come out to help deliver gifts to the less fortunate around Christmas time, or help us get our harvest baskets put together,” she said. 

With a full-time field staff of only three people, Hosanna depends on volunteers. 

“We can do more in a shorter amount of time with the utilization of volunteers—that’s when miracles and magic happen,” said Cadenhead. Groups range in size from 10 to more than 100 people, depending on the project, need and location. 

Hosanna welcomes volunteers of all ages and skill sets.

“We’ve had volunteers as young as 8 up to 88,” said Cadenhead. “We will always find a place for anyone who wants to volunteer.” So far this year, Hosanna has assisted 120 households.

For Williams, giving up vacation time was a small price to pay for the reward of serving others. 

“The government can't serve all who are in need at the time of their need, so Hosanna steps in where they can to provide that help,” he said. “Helping our neighbors is biblical, and Hosanna does that.  

“I volunteer because I know that we are helping people in need, and the more hands who help, the more people who can be helped,” he said. To learn more or to volunteer, visit https://hosannaindustries.org. 

College students are also getting into the action, giving up breaks and vacations to serve others. For the past several years, La Roche University students have assisted others during their spring breaks.

Service-Learning Coordinator Steve Benson coordinated the last two Spring Break Service Trips (SBST)—one for hurricane relief work in St. Croix, USVI, and the other to assist and learn about immigration issues in southern Texas.

“I look for a relevant and timely issue to tackle and build a trip around that,” he explained. “We have a very large Virgin Islander population at La Roche, so the hurricanes had a huge impact on our campus community. It seemed a natural choice to be a part of the recovery effort there.

“The type of student who signs up is already receptive to learning new things about the world and about themselves,” he added. “Last year’s Texas trip seemed particularly eye-opening and impactful.” 

For more information about La Roche University’s Spring Break Service Trips, visit www.laroche.edu.