6 Volunteer Vacation Ideas for Families — And Why You Should Book One
The idea of a volunteer vacation was still new to my family when we first visited the coastal pueblo of Sayulita, Mexico. And I'll be honest: When my two boys saw kids in tattered clothes, bare feet blackened from running on dirt roads, they were startled.
After some of the children approached us, asking for money in exchange for the small trinkets dangling from their fingers, my boys started asking questions. They wanted to know where their parents were, why they had piles of items they were trying to sell. They realized, for the first time, that not all kids get video games, designer footwear, and tickets to baseball outings. And that was sort of my plan.
Up until that point, I felt they were too young to stand still long enough to notice anything beyond themselves. That's why our vacations had always occurred in cushy, isolated resorts. But at 5 and 7 years old, it was time for us to explore parts of the world that exist outside the cozy little bubble we call home.
Voluntourism, the idea of volunteering while traveling, is a way for people to start to understand one another. "It's a way to show children that other people matter, that other cultures outside of your own community matter," says Julie Tunick, a marriage and family counselor at the Ludington Institute for Family. "It's also an opportunity to learn about other people while you're giving back."
If you're in a similar place as a parent and looking for inspiration, here are a few unique volunteer vacation experiences to consider. Each caters to a different type of family, starting with my own experience in Mexico.
Who it's for: Families wanting to connect with other families
Parts of our first volunteer vacation with EntreAmigos looked very much like your average family trip. We surfed in front of a fairy-tale like hotel in Sayulita, played in the pool, and ate local cuisine. But then we hopped in a taxi that took us 20 minutes into the neighboring town of San Pancho to spend time at a community education and art center started by Nicole Swedlow, a single, American mom of two.
The idea for this volunteer center started with Swedlow wanting to contribute to the San Pancho community she loved so much.
"I taught a bit of sewing, recycled art projects, english and computers and other people stopped by and offered to teach the things they knew how to do," says Swedlow.
Next came the government's donation of the warehouse, which they now occupy, and funding and book contributions that helped start a library. Swedlow also started collecting money for scholarships so local kids could attend school past the sixth grade, the point when public education is no longer free in Mexico. Soon children from this illiterate town of fishermen and house cleaners were graduating from college and going on to have professional careers. The center also operates a recycling center, the only one in the area, and a boutique and thrift shop to help finance their expenses.
Families who visit EntreAmigos on vacation can bring backpacks full of school supplies to donate to the children. Gently used clothes and books are also welcome. EntreAmigos seeks out volunteers who can teach a class on sports skills, art, or any activity which they love.
Our family spent time in this magical environment doing the things we could. The boys labeled books while I priced items in the boutique. Afterwards, the boys made friends on the indoor soccer field with kids who might not have comprehended their words but understood the universal language of play.
Who it's for: Families seeking luxury voluntourism
Discover Corps is a volunteer vacation travel company and its founder, Andrew Motiwalla, says the volunteer experience doesn't have to be difficult.
"When you say volunteer vacation, people think of it as arduous and not a vacation, like some kind of Good Samaritan thing we need to do to gain Karma points." He says his travel company provides a high-end version of volunteering. "It's actually quite upscale, we have four and five star lodging and it's really fun and comfortable."
Motiwalla says he was inspired to start his company by the time he spent volunteering in the Peace Corps.
"I was learning quite a bit and having an amazing experience, as well as volunteering and that sort of became my go-to of how I traveled after that. When people heard I was in the Peace Corps, many told me they too had wanted to join but life and jobs got in the way."
So, he started Discover Corps for people who still held those values of global citizenship dear and wanted to contribute to developing communities and build intimate relationships with the locals that live in them. Yet, he realized, when his daughters began coming on the trips, at 4 and 6 years old, that children needed to have fun and parents still wanted to spend time in the pool relaxing after working so hard in their real world. He created itineraries for the family volunteer vacations that included educational, adventurous fun, like canoeing with a biologist or hiking with a naturalist, with cultural exploration and down-time in beautiful, ocean-front accommodations. Motiwalla says families spend about 25% of their time volunteering in between all the other activities.
"It's not the Peace Corps but now, for a week or two, people can have that Peace Corps experience." Only in luxury hotels and not clay huts.
Soaring Samaritans Youth Movement
Who it's for: The DIY-loving family
Denise Jackson says her two daughters, 15 year-old Taylor and 10 year-old Jordyn, grew up volunteering in their community. But it was during a boring car ride, five years ago, when she tasked them with finding something creative to talk about with the rest of the family, that they had the idea of starting a charity.
The charity, Soaring Samaritans Youth Movement, combined the girl's love of soccer with helping kids around the world who don't even own a soccer ball. Before starting their own vacations, the girls hand-deliver indestructible soccer balls to needy children around the world.
"The first time we ever did a delivery, I was very nervous," says Taylor. "I didn't know what to expect." So, to prepare themselves, the girls wrote a speech. "We didn't want to say the wrong thing," Taylor says, "We didn't want to look like we were trying to be better than them."
But as soon as the balls came out of their containers and the kids lined up to receive them, they all relaxed. "It was so fun because the kids were so good and some of them were even better than me and they hadn't had any training!"
The Jackson girls fund their cause with donations and by making and selling bracelets. Their efforts have broadened since they began distributing soccer balls and now include providing educational supplies and books to areas they visit that request them.
Read On the Fly
Who it's for: Families wanting to start small
Your family doesn't have to start a charity to help out. A simple layover, or quick visit, to one of Alaska's airports can impact the lives of thousands of native children through the Read On the Fly program.
Read On the Fly brings reading stations to seven Alaska-based airports and lets kids read while waiting for their departure or even gives books to families who may not have any at home. Volunteers are needed to donate books and help keep the stations tidy and organized.
Erin Kirkland, creator of Read On the Fly, says she started the program because of a lack of access to books by many Alaskan families. Her own love of reading inspired her to try and increase the literacy rates of her adopted state, which she says is one of the lowest in the country.
Jennifer Spatz, founder of family volunteer vacation travel company, Global Family Travels, says when you're starting out volunteering with your family on vacation, it's okay to start small.
"For younger children, trips that offer shorter bursts of volunteer work are recommended." Kirkland is leading a family trip to Alaska in the summer of 2019 through Global Family Travels where families will get to explore the great outdoors in our country's largest state, learn about the land and wildlife as well as assist in the Read On the Fly project.
Who it's for: Families wanting to travel solo
Volunteer projects are available to families who travel on their own as well. A list of reputable companies, that is searchable by location, can be found through Idealist.
On their vacation, Erica Solomon took her family to pick clementines in an orchard. An organization called Leket Israel later delivered the fruit to schools around Israel so they could be added to the lunches of children living in poor families. Her family's experience was such a hit, that next time they visited Israel, they worked at a warehouse for Yad Eliezer which helps supply formula and other essentials for families in need as well as other projects.
"You'd think a warehouse would be boring," says Solomon, "but how often do kids get to go into a warehouse? Plus, the guy in charge made it fun, making jokes and taking videos, which he later showed us."
Who it's for: Families who love to cruise
If cruising is more your style, you still have plenty of volunteer options between your Salsa dance lessons and frosty cocktails. Carnival Cruises offers excursions that include visits to help support orphanages in Cozumel. Holland America has been at it for a decade and offers plenty of adventures that include planting trees in Iceland and Australia. While Crystal Cruises provides guests with very immersive experiences, allowing them to feed the elderly in Belize and help care for animals in Koh Samui, Thailand.
The Voluntourism Mission
"We're not trying to change the world or build a school in only a few days," says Motiwalla. "We're really there to be in support and solidarity with whatever the cause or project. Our hope is that it inspires our travelers to return home as ambassadors of whatever the cause was that they undertook, be it rescuing sea turtles in Costa Rica or helping children in Peru."
Spatz agrees and thinks volunteer vacations help to raise leaders and their benefits extend past the time it takes to do them.
"It's very common that people return from volunteering driven to continue the work they started abroad. Children begin to realize how great of an impact they can have on the world around them and how exciting it can be to help others. Likewise, your entire family will return home with a sense of accomplishment and new lifelong friends."
When our family talks about the time we spent volunteering in San Pancho, my boys fondly recall Carlos, who didn't speak English but had a wicked left chip shot. They talk about the people they met, who they may never see again, but who will live within them forever.