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With the back-to-school chaos behind us, the year’s end and the recurring planning topics that correspond with those boxes on the calendar—tax and retirement planning, and especially charitable giving—start coming into sharper focus.

I love hearing the stories behind my clients’ charitable interests and causes, at this or any time of the year, and I’m always intrigued to learn more about how others map their values onto their lives. As we’ve begun to craft a theme of giving and volunteerism through our own family narrative, these discussions have led us to pursue an unorthodox approach to our most recent vacation.

After all, we’d been there, done that. We’d visited the tropics, the mountains, the lake, sailed on a cruise and made the pilgrimage to Disney. Most of these trips were fun, restful—maybe even restorative or memorable.

But something was lacking. Something was missing. We left that sentiment behind, however, as we departed—for Nicaragua.

Leaving the Bubble

It was not intended to be a vacation in the traditional sense. Our primary purpose was not rest and relaxation, however valid those objectives are. Those elements were indeed present, but our foremost aim was to expand our mental, physical and spiritual horizons through adventure and acts of service.

Such a trip has felt increasingly necessary, as our boys—now 15 and 13—have been privileged to grow up in one of many amazing towns and neighborhoods you could term a “bubble.”

We inhabit these bubbles with the good intention of achieving a high quality of life—good schools, nice houses in safe neighborhoods, cultural proximity and all the accompanying perks.

These are places where genuine hardship does occur, but a veneer shrouds much of its pain and our children may only irregularly witness true external suffering.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the bubble. The bubble isn’t inherently bad, but living in one—and growing up in one—can create an unhealthy distance from life’s more troubling realities. The pitfalls of life inside the bubble—insularity, entitlement, indulgence—are too great to risk remaining inside it.

Surf and Serve

We hoped to find greater fulfillment through surfing and service, and this trip, organized by the Charleston-based nonprofit OneWorld Health, delivered on both.

Every morning, a core group of surfers would meet for strong Nicaraguan coffee at 5:15 a.m. before departing our paradisiacal home base, Surf Sanctuary. A couple pros from Christian Surfers would split up the group, arm us with the appropriate vessel and nudge us toward a surfing spot that sufficiently stretched but didn’t entirely overwhelm our capabilities.

Following a quick rinse, our entire team would pull together for a locally inspired breakfast prepared and served with loving hands by the Florida ex-pat owners of the Sanctuary, before reviewing the day’s service plan. The plan typically included hopping on a souped-up school bus and meeting the OneWorld Health mobile medical unit at a nearby church or school, where we set up a day-long medical clinic staffed by Nicaraguan and American medical professionals. Unskilled but willing aides, like my family and me, helped in a non-medical capacity.

After serving between 110 and 145 Nicaraguans each day, many of whom struggle to gain access to quality medical care, our drives home were marked by satisfied exhaustion and endeavors to process the day’s activities. The passing landscape was so starkly distinct from our vantage point inside of the bubble.

Toward the end of the week, our family could agree on two things. First, this really wasn’t a “vacation.” But second, it just felt better.

Build Your Own

So, what could this concept look like for you? Most of the people I’ve talked to before and after our trip ultimately have said, “Gosh, that sounds amazing,” or, “I’ve wanted to do something like that.” If you fall into that category, you have a couple options:

  • Go all-in. Build your own Surf and Serve trip, replacing the “surf” element with whatever source of adventure appeals to you at whatever recreation-to-service ratio you prefer. Build up anticipation in the months ahead by learning about the culture, talking to various nonprofits in the region and practicing enough of the language to make your way around. For the service part of your trip, I’d like to offer one caveat. Not all forms of help are actually helpful, so I encourage partnering only with nonprofits geared toward creating sustainable change.
  • Take a transitional step. If you’re not ready for the all-in proposition, consider adding a step or two at a time. Facilitate belonging by vacationing with another family. Create a benchmark trip that becomes a rite of passage for your children or grandchildren. Add a goal to your trip that’s enough of a stretch that it feels like an accomplishment. Or, better yet, make that goal to touch base with a local nonprofit you could serve, even for a day or half-day.

The Power of Moments

At the close of our week, perched in a postcard setting after an afternoon walk on the beach, my wife and I discussed the many meaningful memories we had made. In that single moment they accumulated into a deeper sense of fulfillment than we could recall feeling on any trip we’d taken previously.

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