Cathy Huckaby, of Lodi, recalls the scene quite clearly. She'd left her cruise ship and joined other tourists on a bus to visit the Caribbean port city of St. Thomas. Sitting in front of her were two plump middle-aged women, bejeweled and bedecked.
"What is there to do here?," one lady asked the other.
"Oh, I guess we can go shopping again," her friend answered.
Huckaby stepped off the bus and meandered beyond the retail zone, with its showcases of pricey watches, jewelry and sunglasses.
After only a block or two, she found slum conditions and children playing in the dusty street with nothing but sticks and rocks. Huckaby noticed a Salvation Army thrift shop in the decrepit neighborhood.
A tiny light bulb clicked on.
Could some of the well-nourished, well-rested passengers on the cruise ship reach out to the people in this impoverished port city? Passengers like the bored-to-be-shopping-again ladies from the bus?
She returned to the ship and shared her idea with her husband, Bill.
He thought it was inspired.
Now, after months of planning and preparation, the Huckabys are ready to unveil "Hope Floats" for those who'd like to blend leisure with volunteerism. The idea: Cruise ship passengers give up a few hours in port to volunteer at a local nonprofit, perhaps hammering nails for new housing, caring for stray animals or helping feed the homeless. The Huckabys' venture reflects a growing trend toward "voluntourism," blending good times with good works.
The couple plans their first "Hope Floats" cruise in April. Ultimately, they'd like to see the program grow to cruises throughout the Caribbean and Mexico.
"At these ports, many passengers don't even get off the ships," Bill Huckaby said. "This will give them a reason to leave, to experience local culture, and make a difference."
The Huckabys have devoted much of their lives to helping others. Cathy Huckaby is a visiting registered nurse with Lodi Memorial Hospital. She provides diverse in-home care to those with serious health challenges, whether a chronic disease or recovery from stroke or heart attack.
Bill Huckaby is a perfusionist at St. Joseph's Medical Center in Stockton, monitoring a heart-lung machine during major heart operations.
Together, they've volunteered on mission trips, once taking their two older sons to Romania to build housing for orphans.
They've also enjoyed cruising. For several years they were invited to cruise in exchange for providing educational presentations aboard ship. (One of Bill Huckaby's lectures was on "The Top 10 Ways to Avoid Open-Heart Surgery.")
They loved the sunshine, the 24-hour-buffets and the sociability of cruising. They also enjoyed the shore excursions, where they could browse shopping districts, go parasailing or swim with dolphins.
Yet on every voyage, conversations with fellow cruisers — often over dinners of prime rib and lobster — would turn to the needs of the locals.
"Someone would say, 'Did you see all the tin houses on the side of the mountain?' or, 'Did you see the cardboard shacks?' The cruise companies try to guard you from seeing these things," Bill Huckaby said, "but it is impossible not to see them, not to see people in the most desperate conditions."
At every major port of call beckons a well-defined shopping area for the water-going tourists.
"And just beyond those streets of gold is the most abject poverty," Cathy Huckaby said.
She tried to make a difference herself. Before cruises, she'd scour Target and Wal-mart for sale-priced Crayola marking pens, notepads, pencils — all to be given to children in the port cities.
"I wanted to give them something," she recalled. They were beyond poor, so many of the children, scrambling to make money by selling conch shells to the affluent folk who'd left their giant, gleaming ships.
So she passed out the pencils and pens. The children, she said, reacted "as if they'd won the lottery."
Once, she and her family left a cruise ship in Antigua and ventured to a home for severely disabled children. She'd brought a stack of Frisbees for the children, but quickly saw that the gifts were inappropriate.
Most of the children were too sick or deformed to even leave their beds. One of the boys was able to catch the Frisbee, but with his feet.
The family rode back to their ship in sobered silence.
After Cathy Huckaby's bus ride with the women in St. Thomas, she had the epiphany: Why go this alone? Why not link some of 2,000-plus people on the big boats with volunteer tasks on terra firma? After all, she reasoned, the cruisers were relaxed, well-fed, generally quite prosperous. Ready to serve.
Cathy and Bill Huckaby chatted up the idea with friends, who were uniformly encouraging. They did their homework on volunteerism abroad, formed a board of directors, achieved nonprofit status, started a website. They came up with the name, "Hope Floats," from the movie starring Sandra Bullock.
They started networking with charities in the varied Caribbean ports. The watch words of their venture: "Sail, savor, serve."
The Huckabys are devout Christians and see the effort as an extension of their faith. However, "Hope Floats" is not affiliated with any church or denomination, and is open to all.
Their idea, they found, reflects a surge of so-called voluntourism; that is, mixing a vacation with service for a nonprofit. Crystal Cruises this year is introducing what it calls "You Care, We Care." The cruise line will handle all logistics and costs for passengers who'd like to spend time playing soccer with kids in Columbia or cleaning up a beach near Puerto Vallarta.
"As an industry, we are very interested in outreach and volunteerism," said Lanie Fagan, director of communications for the Cruise Lines International Association. "Every effort makes a difference."
She noted some cruise lines have offered non-profit opportunities for passengers, such as on-deck walks to raise money for cancer research.
So as part of this rising trend, the Huckabys are ready for a shakedown cruise with a group of volunteers sailing April 17 on the Caribbean Princess out of Puerto Rico. Volunteers will sign up for their outreach duties before the cruise and their volunteer activities will be coordinated through "Hope Floats." The effort is not affiliated directly with the cruise line, though the Huckabys are working toward that and have received encouraging signals from Princess officials.
The Huckabys are optimists, but also pragmatists. They realize only a fraction of vacationers will be interested in giving up hours for shoreside service. They are hoping for a modest, but purposeful group.
Among the first volunteers for the upcoming "dry run" cruise are their friends Mark and Darcy Zelle and their daughter, Teagan, 11, of Iowa.
"We want to support Cathy and Bill. We'd like to do some meaningful mission work," said Mark Zelle. "We'd also like to expose Teagan to a larger world were many people live without cell phones and iPods and are truly in need. We think this will be an eye-opening experience."
The Huckabys realize "Hope Floats" is an ambitious venture with no guarantees.
"We don't know how this will evolve," Cathy Huckaby said. "We just know this is a calling. Something we absolutely have to do."
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