Two years after Katrina, voluntourism still welcome and needed

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Painting a wall or cleaning a graveyard is not your typical vacation activity. But New Orleans is not your typical American metropolis.

Some travelers are willing, even eager, to lift a paintbrush, rake or hammer, or whatever it takes to leave something behind.

The New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau is catering to the voluntourism market because two years after Hurricane Katrina, sections of the city still need lots of tender loving care -- and repair.

The CVB now has a voluntourism button among its choices at www.neworleanscvb.com. Clicking that button leads to a list of eight organizations that are responsive to the needs of a recovering New Orleans, said Mary Beth Romig, the CVB's director of communications and public relations.

Romig said she recently updated the list to include information that a prospective volunteer or volunteering group would need to know.

For example, Habitat for Humanity volunteers are expected to work a full day (or more days, if they wish), find their own transportation to the site and provide their own lunches.

Other organizations ask for contributions to help cover the costs of repair work. Some ask that volunteers bring their tools. Some seek volunteers with specific areas of expertise.

Part of Romig's job these days is matching volunteers with appropriate projects and organizations.

With enough advance notice, a travel agent sending a group to New Orleans "could tailor a nice activity for the visitors," she said. "We could pair the group, for example, with a school that needs to be painted. And the CVB is glad to help."

It's a new world when voluntourism appears on a CVB Web site alongside the more typical subjects that draw visitors. In addition, Romig said, the leaders at some volunteer organizations are becoming event planners. For example, City Year, a division of AmeriCorps, is hiring an individual who organizes group activities. City Year is an organization of volunteers ages 17 to 24 who commit to a year of community service in their hometowns or elsewhere.

Tourism Cares has facilitated travel industry participation, most recently in concert with members of Vacation.com during the group's annual conference this summer in New Orleans.

Maritz was among the first in the industry to lend a hand in an organized way, Romig said. The company staged its staff meeting in New Orleans in May 2006 and used part of that visit for volunteer work.

Romig said more than half a million people have done volunteer work in the state, based on information from the lieutenant governor's office.

"We hope people feel they've made a difference," Romig said. "They are making a tremendous difference with the simplest things," whether that is completing a new house, painting a library or cleaning New Orleans' City Park. She said the park is "so important, so many people use it."

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to Nadine Godwin at [email protected].

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