Jackson, Miss. — JUNIOR WILSON was holding court for a group of vacationers amid a pile of lumber and a pair of sawhorses. He called it "Junior's School for the Carpentry Impaired."
"You'll use four nails on this stud," he said, demonstrating proper hammering technique. Three or four strikes to each nail, and it was home. I took a turn. Twenty-eight strikes and my first nail still hadn't flattened into the stud.
"You're being too nice to it," said a woman working nearby. "Knock the hell out of it." Everyone laughed.
The group was good-natured -- especially considering the sun hadn't risen yet -- and good-intentioned: All were volunteers with the shared goal of rebuilding homes lost to hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Some had flown or driven across the nation to be here late last month when Habitat for Humanity International launched its newest project, Operation Home Delivery.
Habitat, a nonprofit organization that has built more than 200,000 houses worldwide, moved quickly after Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast in late August. Less than 36 hours after the hurricane made landfall near New Orleans, Habitat had a new home page on its website: "Help hurricane victims rebuild their lives!" Sixty-five houses have already been framed; thousands more are on the drawing boards. For the most part, they will be built by volunteers, many of whom will do so on their vacation.
Philanthropic tours -- vacations with heart -- have been on the rise since the tsunami devastated parts of South Asia in late 2004. Thousands of volunteers have spent the last 10 months cleaning beaches, restoring temples, and building houses and schools. Habitat is one of the groups involved; it alone has built or repaired about 2,000 homes in Thailand, India, Indonesia and Sri Lanka.
But people who want to add meaning to their vacations don't need to go abroad to do so. Volunteer vacations have been a developing segment of the American travel industry for decades. In the U.S., altruistic travelers can repair and build trails with the American Hiking Society, keep track of bottlenose dolphins for the Oceanic Society or work on the Rosebud Sioux Tribe's reservation in South Dakota with Global Volunteers. Most of the trips are sponsored by nonprofit groups; many are partially tax deductible.
Organizers say they're a way for people to give back while they're getting away. "It's travel that feeds the soul," says Bud Philbrook, co-founder of Global Volunteers.
Although no one keeps statistics, most groups say disasters cause spikes of interest in philanthropic travel. Habitat's website (www.habitat.org) has registered 25,500 volunteers since Katrina crashed ashore. And donations have topped $42.5 million. "People want to help," said Paul Leonard, the organization's chief executive.
That was the sentiment that drove us in Jackson.
Doug Shade flew in from Phoenix; Larry Orsini wheeled his RV south from Olean, N.Y.; Georgia residents Fitz and Diane Wickham gave up a vacation in California to come here.
Like many Americans, they groped for words when they talked about the devastation in the Gulf region. All said they wanted to do something, to lend a hand. Habitat gave them the means.
They sawed and hammered, carried and lifted. Regardless of their building skills, they were able to help.
"Spending four days at a beach didn't seem right after the hurricanes," Diane Wickham said. "It's wonderful to be a part of this. To see a bunch of pieces of wood and all of a sudden walls are going up and you know it's going to become a home."
Orsini wasn't sure where he was headed when he left New York. "But I knew I was going to build houses with Habitat," he said. He stopped at a state welcome center when he crossed into Mississippi. "They told me how to get here."
Shade left his wife and two daughters back home when he hopped aboard an eastbound plane, then spent his 44th birthday alone in a restaurant with their pictures propped up on the table beside him. "It was the loneliest birthday dinner of my life," he said. But he was glad he came: "I got here at 5:15 [a.m.] and they had me working by 5:30. It's been an awesome, amazing couple of days.
"I'm not a builder, but when I get back to Phoenix, I'm going to swing a hammer for Habitat."
The organization, which has 1,700 member groups throughout the world, usually concentrates its efforts locally, whether it's in the Southland -- where 175 homes have been built by the Greater L.A. chapter since 1990 -- or in Indonesia, where 818 homes have been constructed since the Dec. 26 tsunami.