Frank Celio wanted to give his three teen-age sons a vacation they'd remember, so he took them to a dusty New Mexican town where they stayed with a poor Navajo family and spent the week hauling rocks for a new community center.
They paid for the privilege, too. ``It was a lot more fun than sitting around on the beach,'' said Celio, a surveyor from Ohio who is divorced and has taken his boys on a cruise and to resorts in the past. Those trips seemed tame compared to living in a traditional Navajo hogan and getting to know a medicine man.
``It certainly was different,'' acknowledged 17-year-old Tony Celio. ``I had to work really hard, but I liked being able to make a difference for someone else.''
Exactly the point. The Celios joined a team under the auspices of the Minnesota-based nonprofit Global Citizens Network to help complete a much-needed project for a community that couldn't afford it.
The idea is to use a vacation to do good -- and it's appealing to a growing number of families, especially those with older kids. They're building houses with Habitat for Humanity and rebuilding burned churches with the Quakers. They're studying wild horses with Earthwatch, helping to maintain Appalachian and Colorado mountain trails, working alongside archeologists on remote Southwestern digs and with historians on National Forest land.
``You get dirty, scraped up and bug bit, but at the end of the day, you can step back and see what you've accomplished,'' said Appalachian Mountain Club spokesman Rob Burbank.
``A lot of parents want to open their children's eyes, to show them everyone isn't as well off as we are,'' added Kim Regnier of the Global Citizens Network.
``Parents who have been involved with the civil rights movement want to share that with their children,'' observed Harold Confer, who coordinates the Quaker church-building project.
Some of these trips, like those sponsored by the Quakers, cost barely anything, aside from transportation. Meals and lodging may be included. Others, especially overseas and environmental efforts, can cost as much as a week at a resort. There's one big difference: These vacations are tax deductible.
They also can be more meaningful. ``We got to know the people there, and they got to know us. It was much more educational for the kids than going to a resort,'' said Marty Gehring, who spent two weeks in the Yucatan with her family digging foundations for cinder-block homes.
Of course, it wasn't all sweat and toil, she noted. Her 12-year-old daughter made friends with the Indian children. There also was time to explore Mayan ruins, swim under waterfalls and tour Mexico City.
``The best part was doing it together, sharing the experience'' added June Huebner, a retired nurse from Indiana who spent more than $1,500 (plus air fare) to take her two 12-year-old grandsons to the Crow Canyon Archeological Center in southwestern Colorado so they could help the archeologists searching for remnants of the ancient Anasazi Indian culture.
``The digging was the best, to see things before anyone anywhere,'' said Damon Spragia, one of the lucky grandsons who pronounced the trip ``the best vacation I ever had.''
Those overseeing the trips are just as happy: Work is getting accomplished that otherwise wouldn't get done, they explain. The cross-cultural efforts not only improve many lives in poor areas but promote understanding. Archeologists, historians, scientists and environmentalists are pleased they have the opportunity to pass on their own enthusiasm to a new generation.
Huebner can't wait until her other grandchildren are old enough to participate. ``It was a lot of money for me, but it goes to a good cause,'' she explained. ``And it was an experience the boys couldn't have had any other way.''
For those of you ready to forgo the beach for the chance to do good, here are some options:
-- ``Free Vacations & Bargain Adventures in the USA'' by Evelyn Kaye ($19.95, Blue Penguin Publications) lists more than two dozen volunteer adventures around the country. Call 800-800-8147 to order. Ask for Kaye's list of top 10 free vacations.
-- Global Citizens Network, a nonprofit group committed to cross-cultural understanding, sponsors building projects in Belize, Guatemala, Kenya and St. Vincent. Children as young as 7 have participated. Call 800-644-9292 or visit the Web site at www.globalcitizens.org.
-- The Quaker Work Camp has sent hundreds of volunteers to Dillon, S.C., and Greensboro, Alabama, to rebuild churches. The week-long program costs $150 plus transportation. Meals and lodging are provided. Call the South Carolina program at 803-774-1965 and the Alabama program at 500-675-1224.
-- Some 7,000 volunteers have joined Passport in Time programs on federal Forest Service land since the program started seven years ago to work with professional archeologists and historians on historic preservation projects. Those with disabilities are welcomed. Some projects provide food and lodging. Call the PIT Clearinghouse at 800-281-9176 for a list of all of the projects now in 34 states.
-- Habitat for Humanity has been made famous by participants, including Jimmy Carter and Hillary Clinton, working to build and renovate low-cost housing, one house at a time, with volunteer labor and tax-deductible donations. Families may participate for a day at a project near their home or for several weeks as far away as Fiji and New Zealand. Call 800-HABITAT or visit the Web site at www.habitat.org.
-- The Colorado Trail Foundation sends crews a week at a time to maintain the 500 miles of trail mostly above 10,000 feet between Denver and Durango. Accommodations, meals and equipment are provided. Call 303-526-0809.
-- The New Hampshire-based Appalachian Mountain Club has volunteer trail building and maintenance efforts in the White Mountains. There are specific crews for teens. Families also may adopt a trail in which they commit to provide basic maintenance for a portion of trail, from picking up litter to cutting brush. Food and lodging typically is provided. Call the AMC at 603-466-2721.
-- The nonprofit environmental organization Earthwatch sends volunteers to work with scientists around the world on projects designed to heighten environmental awareness while collecting scientific data. More than 50,000 volunteers have participated in more than 2,000 projects in the past 25 years. Projects range from studying Costa Rica's caterpillars to the impact of whale watching on whales to a survey of historic stone farmhouses in France. The minimum age is 16. Costs range upward from $600 for a week. Call 800-776-0188 or visit the Web site www.earthwatch.org.
-- The Crow Canyon Archeological Center in Cortez, Colo., sponsors special August family weeks in which parents, grandparents and children at least in seventh grade can participate in a working archeological dig, gleaning insights into the ancient Anasazi communities that once flourished near Mesa Verde National Park. Cost is $795 for adults and $595 for the teens. Call 800-422-8975, extension 142 or visit the web site at www.crowcanyon.org.
-- Florida State Parks invite volunteers to serve as campground hosts. They work four hours a day doing everything from cleaning bathrooms to maintaining trails in return for free camping. Call 850-488-8242. Others states have similar programs. Call the main information line for the state park system.
(TAKING THE KIDS invites your questions, comments or stories about your own family travels. While we can't answer every letter, some of your stories may be used in upcoming columns. Write to Taking the kids, L.A. Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate