FOF Sheryl Kayne was living in Weston, Connecticut, working as a teacher and education writer and raising her children. But deep down, she harbored secret dreams: to drive to Alaska, to become a park ranger, to immerse herself in the culture of a new city, to work with horses…to have adventures.
In 1992, she got divorced, and by 2001 her kids had left home. Sheryl realized, “This is my chance to step out of my life and make great adventures happen.” She wanted to travel but had no desire to take a packaged trip to Cancun and lie on the beach. “I wanted to immerse myself in a location–get to know the people and the culture. I wanted to challenge myself, contribute, grow and learn.” The result is her award-winning guide, Immersion Travel: The Best and Most Meaningful Volunteering, Living, and Learning Excursions. The book chronicles her own “immersion trips”–as a breakfast cook at a lodge in Stehekin, Washington, and as a tour guide in Denali National Park, Alaska–as well as the life-changing trips other men and women have taken to accomplish long-held dreams.
A word of warning: These trips are not pleasure cruises–literally. They can be mentally and physically challenging, but according to Sheryl, that’s all part of the journey. The best part: many “immersion” trips are completely free.
Here, Sheryl shares five fabulous and free(!) opportunities for life-changing travel.
1. Learn Fly Fishing With Friends
Imagine standing in a cool, clear mountain stream, learning to fish with a group of friendly, supportive FOFs. Casting For Recovery provides fly-fishing retreats for women who have or have had breast cancer. It also accepts 1500 volunteers each year to attend and assist the participants. These no-cost retreats are offered at bucolic locations across the country, from Vermont and Alabama to Montana and Colorado. “One of my clients, Sema, attended as a participant and later returned as a volunteer. She credits the trip with giving her a ‘week-long ‘a-ha’ moment, and inspiring her to create her own business helping breast cancer survivors,” says Sheryl.
2. Create Art in a Breathtaking American Setting
Spend the summer ensconced in a cozy cabin, sketching, writing or painting as you gaze upon some of the most breathtaking views America has to offer. The National Park Service’s Volunteers-in-Parks program accepts thousands of applicants a year to volunteer in exchange for housing and VIP park access. If you’re a professional or novice painter, poet, photographer, writer or crafter, consider the artist-in-residence programs. Artists are invited to live and work in the park in exchange for offering a workshop to park visitors or donating a piece of art.
“I volunteered as the writer in residence in the Everglades National Park in 2007 and 2008,” says Sheryl. “It’s exciting to visit a national park, but it’s a lifetime experience to live inside one for an extended period of time.”
3. Work with Primates in Saugus, CA
Indulge your Jane Goodall fantasies when you volunteer to work at the Gibbon Conservation Center in scenic Saugus, CA. Resident volunteers are required to commit to one month of services–accommodations are humble, but included. You’ll work with the researchers to feed, water and care for the gibbons. Says FOF Fiona of her stay: “For anyone with a love of animals wanting to get ‘up close and personal’ with primates, GCC is a wonderful opportunity. I volunteered at the center for four weeks and thoroughly enjoyed becoming part of the gibbons’ day-to-day life. I learned new skills, made good friends, and took away experiences that very few people can match.”
4. Advocate for Wildlife on Hawk Mountain
Experience a wonderful immersion excursion and a sight rarely equaled elsewhere–18,000 hawks, vultures, falcons, and eagles fly directly by Hawk Mountain between August and December.
Hawk Mountain is part of the Blue Mountain Ridge, which has been named a critical corridor by the Pennsylvania Game Commission–State Wildlife Management Agency. Volunteers and interns are needed throughout the summer to help track and protect the hawks. If you’ve got a green thumb, they’re also looking for people who can help give tours of their Native Plant Garden and run their Native Plant Sale.
Long and short-term volunteer opportunities are available in research, monitoring, and environmental education, along with internships.
5. Become a Lighthouse Keeper in the Apostle Islands, Wisconsin
If you’ve ever seen Nights in Rodanthe, you’re familiar with the inn-keeper fantasy. A lonely FOF is taking care of her friend’s seaside inn and welcomes a weary traveler…who just happens to Richard Gere. Well, we can’t guarantee Gere, but we can guarantee that you can enjoy gratis accommodations when you volunteer as a lighthouse keeper in the awe-inspiring Apostle Islands of Wisconsin. Spend several weeks to an entire summer at one of five island locations, greeting tourists, performing light trail work, and maintaining the historic residences.