Washington Post

Wednesday 15 March 2006, 1:15 pm

By Linton Weeks, Washington Post Staff Writer

NEW ORLEANS -- Anita McClendon, 48, and about a dozen other volunteers were gutting the innards of the flood-ravaged Greater Little Zion Baptist Church in the Lower Ninth Ward. It was tough, sweaty work, and for some of the volunteers, it was their vacation.

McClendon, a health care worker from Oakland, Calif., was here for three weeks, ripping down demolished buildings by day -- and dancing to zydeco by night. She and thousands of other volunteers are combining work and play to help rebuild this devastated city.

This month, they are being joined by hundreds of college students spending spring break here and on Mississippi's Gulf Coast. They include 200 students from Howard University, more than 40 from George Washington University and more than two dozen from American University's Washington College of Law. The effort is dubbed "voluntourism," and local leaders say it is critical to the rebuilding because it provides dollar-spending fun lovers and hammer-wielding fixer-uppers all rolled into one. The more than 1,000 students expected here in the coming weeks will clean out houses and churches and day-care centers.

The Web site www.VolunTourism.org points out that the combination of volunteerism and tourism dates back centuries: Missionaries, sailors, explorers and others performed social services while visiting new places. The modern iteration began in the 1960s with the launching of the Peace Corps. Study-abroad programs in the 1970s and ecotourism in the 1980s expanded the notion. Volunteer vacations, with organizations such as Earthwatch, really took hold in the 1990s.

Habitat for Humanity, the Georgia-based home-building group for low-income families, offers voluntourism opportunities, called "global village trips," around the world. Spokesman Duane Bates said, "They build houses during the day and enjoy cultural activities at night."

Through Habitat, volunteers are helping to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. Since January, more than 1,300 people have worked for the group in the greater New Orleans area.