Fifteen-year-old Nathan Smith of Bountiful, Utah, wanted to try all the rides at California's Disneyland.
Marcus Celio, 16, of Delaware, Ohio, hoped to improve his golf game at some swank resort.
Instead, both boys and their families spent their vacation last year doing heavy labor for strangers in remote areas. Nathan helped refurbish an elderly woman's dilapidated home in Tumacacori, Ariz.; Marcus worked to build a retaining wall for a Navajo youth center in Tohatchi, N.M.
"It wasn't what I wanted at all, but it made me feel I was needed and could make a difference in someone's life, says Nathan.
An increasing number of families are turning their vacations into opportunities to help others -- renovating houses for poor elderly folks in run-down neighborhoods, working on Native American reservations, excavating cultural and historical sites to preserve remnants of the past, clearing hiking trails in the state or national park system or rebuilding arson-burned churches -- particularly in African-American communities.
These projects are opportunities for volunteers to work not just with their hands but with their hearts, while at the same time getting to see a different part of the country and experiencing a new part of themselves. They are the do-gooder wing of learning vacations, which are among the fastest-growing vacations nationwide -- especially for families.
As a bonus, part of the cost -- which can range from a small registration fee to hundreds of dollars for housing, food and transportation -- is usually tax deductible.
For three families, making a difference to others reaped huge personal benefits.
Turning a house into a home
Eighty-five-year-old Hermenia Lopez's eyes welled up with tears when she saw what the visitors had done to her house in the tiny town of Tumacacori, Ariz.
"Thank you from the bottom of my heart, she told them in Spanish, through a translator, as she gazed at the clean, modernized home that had replaced the crumbling wreck of only a week before.
It was with the hopes of creating that kind of joy that Richard and Debbie Smith had canceled a family trip to Disneyland to volunteer themselves and their three children -- Johnna, 13, Nathan, 15, and Nanette, 18 -- to work with a Washington D.C.-based philanthropic organization called Christmas in April. The nonprofit group works in partnership with communities around the country rehabilitating houses of elderly or disabled people who can't help themselves.
"I've always felt that those of us who have comfortable lives have an obligation to help those who are less fortunate, says Richard Smith. "This seemed a great way to live that belief as a family.
The Smiths' two younger children, however, were furious at the change in plans.
"I didn't see why I should give up my vacation to work for free helping strangers, recalls Nathan, a typically rebellious teen-ager who usually avoided spending time with his parents and sisters.
The Smiths' goodwill odyssey started with a drive from their home to the small community near Nogales, Ariz., two miles north of the Mexican border. Tumacacori was a down-at-the-heels village with many residents barely scraping by. And the home of Hermenia Lopez was one of the worst.
"It was an unlivable shack that needed complete rebuilding, says Richard Smith, describing a structure that had holes in the roof, broken windows and a front door that would not fully close.
The Smiths and four other families worked with a team leader, demolishing rickety walls, repairing rotten floors and re-tarring the roof. "It felt good to be counted on to do something others appreciated," says Nathan, who used sandpaper and paint to turn a broken heap into a picnic table that looked like new.
"The selfish teen-ager we brought to Tumacacori turned into a skilled and sensitive young man I felt proud of, says his mother.
While the work on Mrs. Lopez's house took long hours, there were breaks for play -- the volunteers visited the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum near Tucson and traveled to Mexico for dinner and to participate in cultural workshops with their team leader.
"But the special value was in the life lessons the kids came home with, Debbie Smith says. "They learned that any life worth living involves giving to others.
Bridging culture gaps on a reservation
Frank Cello, a divorced father of three teen-age sons in Delaware, Ohio, was trying to find something adventurous and meaningful to do with his boys, when he heard about Global Citizens Network, a Minnesota-based organization that runs volunteer programs worldwide. Dominic, 18, Tony, 17, and Marcus, 16, were growing up fast, and spending extended time together was increasingly difficult to manage.
A one-week project on a Navajo Reservation in Tohatchi, N.M. -- building a protective wall to shield the youth center from potentially dangerous rocks and dirt -- appealed to the family of four guys looking to work with their hands and explore a dramatic geological region.
Best of all the Celios' close friends, Tim and Julie Dickens decided to bring along their brood, too -- Matt, 16, Katie, 14, and Eric, 10.
The nine helpers found a Navajo community that was poor in financial resources but rich in pride -- for 1,000 years their people have lived in this arid patch of country in northwest New Mexico.
"I hadn't realized how poor many Native American communities are in our land of plenty, says Julie Dickens.
Though gung-ho to be useful, the Ohioans were not prepared for their eclectic living arrangements. The Celios spent the week in a traditional Native American hogan, a one-room octagonal building made of tree bark and mud.
"There was no electricity, so our light came from a bulb at the end of a 70-foot cord plugged into the house next store, Frank Celio recalls. "Heat came from a homemade woodburning stove, and our bathroom was an outhouse. It was fun to feel like pioneers -- for a while.
The Dickenses had electricity but equally unusual living arrangements -- and not all of them together. Tim and Julie were housed in the back room of the community bingo hall, Matt stayed with a local family in their trailer, and Eric and Katie lived with the Natonabah family a few miles away.
"With our living conditions and long hours, we thought of getting out of there at first, admits Julie Dickens. "But we felt so connected to the people -- we couldn't walk out on them.
Over the course of the week, the children, especially, got to know a way of life that was foreign to them, even in their own country. "I learned not to take my life for granted, says Dominic Celio. "I never felt rich before, but by comparison, I really am.
His brother, Tony, says he was "surprised I had so much in common with these kids who are from a completely different world. But we liked the same kinds of cars, dogs and music.
The two Natonabah children, Kateri, 14, and Darren, 12, got along with their guests so well that they visited the Dickenses in Ohio.
"People like the Dickenses make the world feel smaller and less cold, says Gloria Natonabah, mother of the Navajo children. "And the kids helped my kids to feel more like other children, without the barriers of race.
Digging to preserve the past
Had Dale and Jolene Tucker not been seated at a dinner six years ago next to a talkative archaeologist, they might never have found what has become the family's biggest passion -- digging.
The archaeologist told the couple from Lewiston, Idaho, about a nonprofit program called Passport in Time. Run by the U.S. Forest Service, the volunteer program invites the public to join in excavations of archaeological and cultural sites around the United States to study and preserve areas that otherwise would be destroyed by erosion or development.
"Our son, Simon, had been fascinated with archaeology since he was 3, says Jolene Tucker. "When he was still smitten at 8, we decided to find a way to help him further his interest. The timing was perfect.
In the summer of 1994, 9-year-old Simon and his brothers, Andrew, 14, and Nate, 18, found themselves up to their knees in soil and artifacts, excavating prehistoric Native American sites in the Boise National Forest. The program also included lectures, tours and visits to museums.
The Tuckers have gone on digs every year since, and the one- and two-week programs are the highlight of the summer. A recent project at the Hong Lee Placer Claim in southwestern Idaho, involved studying the life of Chinese mine workers who blasted gold out of the hills in the late 1800s.
"We found lease records, old Sears catalogs, grocery receipts, even work boots, Simon says. "We learned about the hard life the Chinese led; I could relate to them as real people.
Project director Susie Osgood has taken a special interest in Simon through the years. She has taught him to "pin flag areas (mark places likely to have promising finds), and carefully dig for artifacts using shovels and trowels, sifting dirt through screens. He also has learned how to catalog finds and photograph excavation sites.
The experience has convinced Simon he wants to be an archaeologist, and the family can't wait for the next project.
"It's like anticipatingChristmas, Jolene Tucker says. "Only this gift enriches us for the rest of our lives.
Booking a family volunteer vacation
Christmas in April; (202) 483-9083. 1536 16th St. N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 483-9583. Web site:
Global Citizen's Network; (800) 644-9292 or (612) 644-0960. 130 N. Howell St., St. Paul, MN. 55104. Web site: www.globalcitizens.org.
Passport in Time: (800) 281-9176 or (520) 722-2716. P.O. Box 31315, Tucson, AZ. 85751.