Next stop on your trip to Italy: teaching Football 1A

In his 76 years, Bob Dageforde has compiled an impressive list of personal and professional achievements, areas of expertise and honorary titles. But until he visited southern Italy last year, "football expert" never made the list.

"I had never really thought about how much or how little I knew about football," Dageforde said, "until I had to describe it to a group that knew absolutely nothing."

Dageforde's impromptu tutorial on the idiosyncrasies of American football took place in a high school classroom in Francavilla Fontana, a small city in a coastal province of Italy's boot heel.

The retired architect from Peoria Heights, Ill. found himself becoming a living, breathing visual aid for an English class of small-town Italian teenagers — thanks to a group called Global Volunteers. The non-profit company connects people wanting more from their vacations than guided museum tours, cheesy postcards and cheap souvenirs to some of the most exotic spots on earth.

The group's catalog pitches its mission as "travel that feeds the soul."

"There are lots of people out there with Peace Corps-like ideals and leanings, but just can't make the two-year commitment," said Barbara DeGroot, a spokesperson for the St. Paul, Minn.-based program. "This is an opportunity to do something in a vacation time frame that gives our volunteers a feeling of helping out. That really strikes a chord with some people."

People like Dageforde, who learned of Global Volunteers while researching a trip with Elderhostel. A seasoned world traveler, he was intrigued by the idea of doing more on a trip than touring the countryside, dining in tourist traps and shambling through cathedrals and museums. For a fee, Global Volunteers promised meaningful and up-close encounters with residents of countries around the world.

Dageforde was part of a team of 15 Americans who signed on to help teach English to Italian high school students. The group stayed in a converted mansion hotel in Ostuni, a stunning 10th-century city on the Adriatic Sea in southern Italy. Twelve members stayed and helped out in the schools in Ostuni, while Dageforde and two others traveled about 15 miles each day to the even smaller city of Francavilla Fontana. Each member of the group spent about five hours a day in the classroom, then got together for evening meals.

"These kids were being taught English, anyway, but they had little contact with native speakers," Dageforde said. "Their teachers were good English speakers, but they obviously spoke it with a heavy Italian accent, so hearing us talk helped them out with pronunciation and context."

No teaching experience is required to participate in the program, which was a good thing since Dageforde has none. Instead, the Americans are integrated into the curriculum as sounding boards for the Italian students' fledgling English. They ask questions; the Americans answer. It gives the students the opportunity to hear what "real" English sounds like and to satisfy their curiosity about life in the United States at the same time.

"The kids had an almost morbid interest in violence in the United States," Dageforde said. "They wanted to know why it is so easy for young people to get guns, what my views on the death penalty are, and things like that."

Dageforde found the students to be well informed on global issues and curious about what they saw as great American paradoxes: how, for instance, a country of great global influence could have such divisive racial strife, and how a country of great prosperity seems to struggle with a tendency toward violence.

Mostly, however, the questions leaned toward the less serious.

"Like any kids, they asked stuff like, 'Where do you live' and, 'What does it look like,'" Dageforde said. "At first, they were quiet and very respectful, but once you moved among them for a while, they loosened right up."

Global Volunteers has no age restriction. Twentysomethings are as valued as seniors, although the latter make up about 70 percent of the company's business, DeGroot said. About 2,000 people annually take service vacations through the program to 19 countries. Destinations include China, Costa Rica, Ghana, Greece, India, Indonesia and Vietnam.

Besides teaching English, participants help with projects like constructing walking paths and rain shelters in Costa Rica or helping feed and care for premature babies in Romania.

"We generally go off the beaten tourist path," DeGroot said. "We give volunteers the opportunity to see how people live in their own environment."

Other organizations specializing in service-oriented vacations include Global Citizens Corporation, Global Service Corporation and Cross-Cultural Solutions. Habitat for Humanity offers similar packages, but mostly in the United States, and its emphasis is on home rehabilitation and construction work for the poor.

Participation costs vary. The trip to Italy costs volunteers $1,995 for a one-week program and $2,295 for two weeks. Airfare to Brindisi, Italy, is not included, but is tax deductible because of the company's tax-exempt status.

Dageforde said his experience with Global Volunteers was deeply meaningful — and enjoyable.

"I think it's particularly appealing for anyone with even a modest sense of adventure," said Dageforde, adding that a participant needs to be physically up to the rigors of travel and being away from the comforts of home. "What you really need is flexibility and tolerance."