After working with developmentally disabled adults at a residential care facility for years, Santa Barbara resident Dee Duncan started New Directions Travel in her studio apartment. The now 27-year-old unique travel nonprofit arranges for individuals with developmental disorders to take domestic and international trips to places such as San Francisco, Fiji, Hawaii, and South Africa.

Duncan said that it was her experience working in the residential facility that led her to start New Directions Travel. After witnessing the positive changes that residents underwent after going on vacations, Duncan realized that travel tours were the best way to teach independent life skills and self esteem to residents, while simultaneously teaching the public about acceptance.

New Directions Travel offers numerous trips to popular vacation destinations such as Las Vegas and Disneyland throughout the year, and several “Holiday Happiness” trip options as well.

During her experience at the care facility, Duncan was extremely saddened by the sight of those without family involvement being left behind at the facility while their peers and staff packed and left for the holidays, so the first trip she offered was a Holiday Happiness trip in 1985. The program offers a home-style stay in San Diego, San Francisco, or at Disneyland, and features deluxe hotel accommodations, gourmet meals, hand-decorated stockings and trees, as well as visits and gifts from Santa Claus. Most who participate in Holiday Happiness are wards of the state or have been abandoned by their families.

The nonprofit arranges vacations for roughly 600 travelers from across the country every year, and one caregiver is provided for every four participants. Trips feature activities such as interacting with dolphins, visiting amusement parks, and parasailing. Tour guides that chaperone the groups are special education instructors, recreation therapists, and other staff who are specifically trained to work with people with disabilities.

Director of operations Jeanne Mohle said that a priority of New Directions Travel is to ensure that the disabled can go on the vacation of their dreams, even if money is tight. The organization gives out scholarships to those who need the assistance, and its priority is to give monies for the holiday tours. Roughly half of the travelers on the holiday trips receive full or partial scholarships.

“Anyone who has developmental disability is welcome to apply for a scholarship. They just need to let us know about them, how much of the trip they can afford, and what trip they can go on. We like the participants to be able to pay a little bit so we can give out more partial scholarships and help more people out,” explained Mohle. “We’ve just awarded the trips for Holiday Happiness, and we’re already getting calls from people who are so excited for the trips.”

There will be an online auction to raise money for the New Directions Travel scholarship fund starting this week. Items up for auction include an autographed Kobe Bryant Lakers jersey, a five-day, four-night trip to Cancun, and a hot air balloon ride.

The auction runs until September 30. For more information on volunteer opportunities, and how to participate in the silent auction or donate, visit


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