TRAVERSE CITY — Not everyone who visits this Lake Michigan resort town is content to lie on the beach all day munching cherries and sipping wine. Well, not all the time, anyway.

A growing number of tourists and meeting participants, in fact, are volunteering on community service projects during their time here. Some may spend a day cleaning up a beach or maintaining a hiking trail; others may pick up hammers or paintbrushes to rehabilitate old buildings.

Through a program called “Visit with a Purpose,” vacationers and conventioneers can arrange to work on short-term volunteer projects, partnering with groups as diverse as the Great Lakes Children’s Museum, the Maritime Heritage Alliance and the Alliance for the Great Lakes.

Volunteer travel, sometimes known as Voluntourism, is a growing phenomenon.  According to the Travel Industry Association of America, more than 55 million Americans have participated in a volunteer vacation, and about 100 million more are considering taking one. Professional and fraternal associations often incorporate service projects into their convention agendas, as well – most visibly in New Orleans, where meeting attendees regularly pitched in to help clean up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Visiting teens paint chairs at Traverse City’s Habitat for Humanity

They’re a diverse group: college students, retirees, business people, members of religious and fraternal groups, environmentalists and families who just want to make themselves useful to their host community.

“A lot of times, they’re people who’ve been vacationing here for years and have come to love this community,” says Erin Bernhard, volunteer technology coordinator at the United Way of Northwest Michigan Volunteer Center, which manages the program. “This is their way of giving back, of doing something to help this place flourish.”

As the clearinghouse for more than 200 non-profit groups in the region around Traverse City, Bernhard’s agency has some experience in coordinating volunteer projects; it organizes an annual “Day of Caring” in September that places more than 300 volunteers with agencies that need their help.

But the agency now finds itself fielding an increasing number of requests from would-be volunteers from out of town – particularly during the warm summer months. The idea of creating a permanent Voluntourism program arose in late 2012 when Traverse City hosted the annual conference of the Volunteer Centers of Michigan and organized a project for the assembled delegates to work on.

“We realized that as a volunteer organization in a place where so many people are in transit, on vacation or at meetings, it just made a lot of sense to organize what we were doing,” says Bernhard. “Having some kind of template in place also allows us to add a fee-based component to cover some of the costs to us and the organizations that are directly involved. Up to now, lack of funding has been the biggest barrier to putting these kinds of programs into effect.”

Given Traverse City’s prominence as an outdoor recreation destination, it’s probably not surprising that most of the volunteer opportunities chosen by visitors so far have involved hiking trails, beaches and other environmental projects. That’s partly because most visitors arrive during the summer months, said Bernhard, and partly because there seems to be more enthusiasm for outdoor work.

“Besides, we know that those organizations are always looking for workers,” she added. “But we’re working hard to put together a more well-rounded menu of opportunities that would be available in other seasons of the year.”

Scraping paint  at a nonprofit horse ranch for veterans

Brad Van Dommelen, president of the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he was surprised when United Way director Steve Wade first proposed working together on the program, but found himself quickly warming to the idea. He calls Visit with a Purpose  a “cool opportunity” to widen the community’s appeal to visitors who want to experience closer connections to the places they visit.

“Experiential travel is growing in popularity, so why not incorporate a volunteerism experience?” he said.

For more information about the Visit With a Purpose program, and to sign up for a possible Voluntourism project, go to To learn about other things to see and do in Traverse City, and for assistance with lodging and dining options, contact the Traverse City Convention & Visitors Bureau at 1-800-TRAVERSE or on line at

*Content sponsored by the Traverse City Convention and Visitors Bureau.


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