When my husband, Darrin, and I were planning our family vacation last year, we were looking for something different from our annual trip to the beach. Since our son, Sam, came along four years ago, we haven't had as much time to devote to volunteer work as we did in our pre-parent days. We wanted to use some of our downtime to do just that yet still get in some much-needed R&R.
Our friends told us about "voluntourism" vacations, where families help out a good cause during part of their trip. While there have long been opportunities to devote your entire vacation to lending a hand, a growing number of hotels and resorts offer packages that have a few hours of volunteer service built into each day. And, in many cases, the volunteer activities are even toddler-friendly, such as picking up trash on hiking trails or watering plants in a garden that feeds a homeless shelter.
There are opportunities all over the country, but we chose to stay at the Alisal Guest Ranch and Resort, in Solvang, California (alisal.com), because it's just a three-hour drive from our home in Los Angeles and it has an amazing children's program that is broken into four age groups: 3 to 5, 6 to 10, 11 to 12, and 13 to 17. We liked that Sam would be with other preschoolers rather than mixed in with older kids. Another plus of Alisal: It reminded Darrin and me of our favorite childhood vacations -- mine on my uncle's ranch, his in New York's Catskill Mountains.
Our large studio room at the resort cost $550 per night, which seemed pricey at first. But because meals and many activities like fishing, pool games, and kid's crafts were included in the price, we weren't reaching into our wallet every minute as we'd been doing on other family trips.
We did worry that Sam, who is full of energy, would think that the volunteer work was boring and beg to go to the pool instead. Our fears were allayed on the first day when we spent about two hours feeding and tending to abandoned and abused animals at the barnyard -- which houses pigs, cows, goats, miniature horses, dogs, and a rooster. We had to coax Sam into leaving. He was also a great helper on the mornings we picked up trash and debris from the nature trails.
Even with volunteering two or three hours each day, we still had plenty of time to kick back and relax. Sam caught his first bass with Darrin, we splashed in a pool that has a big shallow end, and we dropped Sam off at the kids' camp so Darrin and I could sneak in a little alone time. While we were gone, Sam made nature collages (still hanging in our kitchen!) and learned about water conservation. I was pleased at how the kids' camp matched the spirit of the resort.
On our return drive to Los Angeles, Sam began pointing out all the litter along Route 405, and we had to explain why we just couldn't pull over to pick up trash on the highway. But my sweet son's willingness to do so was proof enough that our trip made an impact. What's a better souvenir than that? I'm already planning for next year's trip at one of these other family-friendly spots.