Steve and Alice Mohror are on vacation this week, but they haven't ventured far from their south Minneapolis home. It has nothing to do with one of those "staycations" motivated by a need to save money. Theirs is a higher calling: using their free time to help others.

"I want to give back to this neighborhood because it's my neighborhood," said Steve Mohror, part of a crew of volunteers building a privacy fence for a homeowner who was trying to put some distance -- both physical and symbolic -- between her well-maintained home and the abandoned, foreclosed house next door.

"I drive down these streets every day," Mohror continued. "Now when I drive by this place, I'm going to be able to say, 'I was there with a crew and helped make it better.'"

The Mohrors are part of a movement that's been around for decades, but has skyrocketed in the past few years, especially since Hurricane Katrina: using a week -- or more, in some cases -- of vacation to do volunteer labor for the less fortunate.

They're called "vacations with a purpose" or short-term mission trips. Once primarily the purview of church groups, they now also are arranged by service organizations reaching out to individuals and their families.

According to the Travel Industry Association, 2.1 million Americans will take "vacations with a purpose" this year, contributing the equivalent of $6 billion in labor. That number has doubled in five years, said Roger Peterson, CEO of STEM (Short-Term Evangelical Missions) International.

"In 2003, we were at about 1 million," said Peterson, who founded the Bloomington-based company in 1985 and often serves as a national spokesman for the industry. "Hurricane Katrina is responsible for much of that upsurge. On CNN and Fox [TV news], it was all Katrina, all the time, and people wanted to help."

In the process, a lot of people discovered that there's something addictive about it.

"You can't do just one," said Debbie Luth, a high school English teacher from Grand Forks, N.D., and a second-time volunteer who also worked on the privacy fence, part of a week's labor that included unloading semitruck trailers full of donated food and helping lead classes at the Boys and Girls Club of Minneapolis.

"This week, if I were home, I'd be working on my quilt or going to the lake to sun-tan," she said. "This is the only thing that will last. The quilt will unravel and the tan will fade, but this is something that makes a difference."

The fence was being built for Sadia Noor, a Somali immigrant who found out about the volunteer program in unusual fashion: She was trying to teach her daughter to drive when the teenager lost control of the car, smashed through a fence and came to a stop in a yard that turned out to belong to the Rev. Andy Gray.

Once they finished discussing what to do about the errant minivan, Gray mentioned that one of his duties at the Urban Refuge church in south Minneapolis was to organize short-term, in-town missions.

"We got to talking, and discovered that Sadia could use a little help," said Gray, who also had a crew help paint her house last year. "Sadia has turned out to be a very good friend."

This is the seventh summer Steve Mohror has used his vacation time for mission work. His wife is on her third summer. Asked what she gets out of it, Alice responded, "You mean besides the sweat? There's a lot of that." She laughed. "But there's also the chance to help someone who can't give back to you, and that feels good."

Brian Pals is in town for the week from Denver. He's an old hand at this. "I've spent at least one week on a mission trip every year since 1991," he said. He ended up in Minneapolis this year because his church "is a sister church to Andy's. We got a call from him. He was looking for money and people, and I said, 'I can do people.'"

In all, 40 people took part in various projects over the week as part of Gray's troop. The "grand finale," so to speak, takes place today when they all will gather at his church with volunteers from Kids Against Hunger for a "pack-a-thon" in which the goal is to pack 100,000 meals for children in Nicaragua and Haiti.

All in the family

Families also are welcome on many of the short-term missions. In fact, Twin Cities-based World Servants focuses on such endeavors.

"We get a lot of families who are looking for a way to reconnect," said operations manager Jennifer Kemper. "It's a common experience that the family can build on later. They get to go places and do things they wouldn't normally do together. It gives them something to talk about besides 'What did you do in school today?'"

The lesson of helping others is one that many youngsters take with them. Earlier this summer, Rachel Berns, 18, spent a week in the Twin Cities on a mission trip arranged by STEP. She's been doing such things since she was a little kid.

"My grandparents had a tradition of taking the whole family with them on a mission trip," she said from her home in Nebraska. "I really got to enjoy it. I know that summer is supposed to be a time to relax and goof off, but it's also important to serve God. It was a great experience going with my grandpa and grandma, and now I volunteer for a short-term mission every year."

Vacations with a purpose are becoming so popular that there's even a how-to book. "Hope Lives" (Group Publishing, $12.99) is based on humanitarian activist Amber van Schooneveld's experiences.

"There are a lot of misconceptions" about the missions, Van Schooneveld said. "To most people, it doesn't sound like a vacation. You're not sitting with your feet up; you're working. But you don't come back tired. You come back refreshed and recharged."

Jeff Strickler • 612-673-7392