There's a reason why “taking a holiday” is synonymous with “taking a break.”
During the holidays, most people spend time with friends and family. Some take the opportunity to hit the slopes or the beaches. Others take a selfless approach to the most wonderful time of the year — although plenty could argue that listening patiently to Aunt Myrtle's endless stories about your childhood foibles is pretty selfless.
Enter the holiday volunteer. While many are singing about figgy pudding, they're piecing together Haiti and shoring up the Philippines.
That's been the case with the American Red Cross since the late 1800s. Melanie Pipkin Kozel, who has been with the organization for nearly 18 years, started as a volunteer in Korea. She says volunteer work over the holidays is simply a matter of course for someone in her line of work.
“We see it throughout the work that the Red Cross does,” she says. “We often have people that give up their time with their families and go.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy last year, Red Cross volunteer operations were in full force during Christmastime in the affected areas of New York and New Jersey.
Other areas around the world need attention right now, no matter what the season.
“In the Philippines, we have a large-scale international disaster,” says Kozel. “We send out our relief teams, and they go knowing that they're going to miss some of the holidays.”
Currently, the American Red Cross is dispatching volunteers a month at a time to the Philippines in the wake of Typhoon Haiyan. The next group will head to the area just before Christmas to relieve the group that's been there since Thanksgiving.
The Philippines boasts one of the most enthusiastic (and longest) Christmas celebrations in the world. And Kozel thinks that sort of holiday reverence can help make volunteers feel right at home, especially if they share in that same spirit.
“It's always nice when you're in a different country and see something that reminds you of home,” Kozel says. “But I think that the special part of the holidays for our folks when they're gone is being able to do something that takes care of others and that affects the recovery of others — I think that's one of the best gifts that you can give anyone for the holidays.”
But for the most part, volunteers aren't checking their work schedules against the calendar. “It's just when people are in need, they go,” Kozel says.
The Red Cross relief team that was in the Philippines during Thanksgiving will soon come home for Christmas. According to Kozel, they shared Thanksgiving with other members of the Red Cross team, whether they regularly celebrated the holiday or not.
“The work goes on, but they always try, at the end of the day, to take time to recognize and share the holidays,” says Kozel. “And when you work in an international setting like we do, and you have so many nationalities there, it's often common that it's not a shared holiday.”
Michael Murphy, a member of Volunteers for Peace, likes the fact that volunteering abroad during the holidays allows him to pass traditions around the table — and learn about others, too.
“Certainly, gaining cultural perspectives is an interesting and enriching experience at any time, but during the holidays cultural distinctiveness is much more defined,” he says. “People are so welcoming and excited to bring new people into their families and into their traditions that holidays in an unfamiliar place can often be a new and exciting experience.”
Meg Brook, executive director of Volunteers for Peace, came from a volunteer-oriented family. She was encouraged from a young age to help the elderly and serve on committees. And now her daughters, ages 8 and 12, follow in the family footsteps.
The eldest daughter, at 10 months, rode in a backpack during one of her mother's international volunteer missions. “It's just part of life,” says Brook.
That's why it's surprising to hear Brook say that volunteering shouldn't necessarily be a wholly selfless experience. “You can't know what a reaction in another culture is going to be,” she says. “You have to be motivated to do it for what it's going to bring to your life. Those other things are sort of the icing of the cake… the drive should come from within.”
Over Thanksgiving, Brook joined a volunteer group in Nicaragua.
“We talked about what it meant to really be thankful for things, and what kinds of things we take for granted,” she says.
Having those conversations in areas where most are truly in need is good for perspective. And doing so often gets to the very root of why people choose to volunteer during the holidays in the first place.
“A lot of people do it because they want to avoid the commercialization of the period,” says Brook. “They want to do something that seems more permanent and more human than buying things and trying to express your appreciation for people through gifts.”
And most discover that they couldn't find a more meaningful way to spend the holiday.
“Those kinds of profound pieces are what people take home with them," she concludes. "Those are the things that last a lifetime.”