Visiting aid organizations while touring

This item appears on page 41 of the August 2009 issue.

After I had traveled to over 60 countries, my wife, Anne, and I decided to see what our brother/sister St. Vincent de Paul workers were doing worldwide.

We contacted the national office of SVDP — National Council of the United States Society of Saint Vincent de Paul (58 Progress Parkway, St. Louis, MI 63043-3706; phone 314/576-3993, — and a coordinator for 130-plus countries helped give us access to staff and volunteers in those we planned to visit.

Our first SVDP visit was to Israel in 1991. I have subsequently met with or exchanged methods of helping the poor or homeless in Syria, Latvia, Kenya, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, India and, most recently in February 2009, Bahrain. Anne went on most of those trips.

All these visits were made during organized tours. We’ve been able to do this by discovering, in advance, when there would be leisure time in the planned program. (Other tour group members knew we were making these side visits, but none were interested in accompanying us and few even knew of SVDP and its worldwide mission.)

In January ’05 a friend and I spent one month visiting SVDP units in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. We saw the worst of the slums in Rio, São Paulo and Buenos Aires; visited drop-in centers, soup kitchens, orphanages, homes for the aging, hospitals, schools, AIDS/leper centers and seminary housing for students for the priesthood, and visited the offices and personal homes of staff and volunteers in each country.

A highlight was seeing the large mobile home that’s used each Friday in the port of Rio, where food, clothing and medications are distributed to street people.

On our visits, we lectured and shared materials on how our branch of SVDP specifically helps the poor/homeless in San Mateo County, California. Here, we have a phone help hotline that I monitor four times a day, seven days a week. We respond to 40 to 50 calls monthly and give out vouchers for motels, food (from Safeway) and gasoline.

Using a consolidator, our month-long South America trip cost us $3,000 each, including air, hotels, meals, sightseeing, gifts — everything. Much of our sightseeing was hosted by those we visited, giving us a unique feeling for each country through the eyes of natives.

Any traveler who is involved in a civic, fraternal, professional or religious organization can do the same by contacting the national office to get worldwide contacts. It’s really a unique way to get educated and, quite often, see sights most tourists know nothing about.

Menlo Park, CA