PBS travel expert and mom Colleen Kelly explores the world of voluntourism—and how to plan the right trip for your family.

By Colleen Kelly
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Every holiday season, I start thinking about how fortunate my family and I are while contemplating more ways for us to give back to others. Since we’re lucky to travel a great deal, “voluntourism” has caught my attention: a trip combined with volunteer opportunities.

I’m not alone; according to a Tourism Cares survey, 81 percent of participating millennials who traveled in the past two years volunteered during their trip. The really good news? There are opportunities for service at every age, and for every comfort level. Here are some ideas for getting started.

You Can Give: An Hour or Two

I’m so impressed by how many organizations are helping families do simple (but meaningful!) acts of kindness when abroad. One option: Look up your destination on Pack for a Purpose. The nonprofit pairs you with schools, animal clinics, or orphanages that need supplies. Purchase and pack the requested items in your luggage, then donate them when you arrive.

You Can Give: An Afternoon or More

There are also many ways to volunteer for part of your trip. I think this is an excellent idea, since it allows you to see how your kids do before planning an entire trip around giving back. For example, in Orlando, older kids (12 and up) can spend a morning serving breakfast at Give Kids the World Village, a nonprofit “storybook resort” for children with life-threatening illnesses and their families.

Carnival Cruise Line offers “Give Back with Purpose” shore excursions such as one in Cozumel, Mexico, where families can help the local community during a visit to a church and orphanage. Holland America, Costa Cruises and Crystal Cruises have similar volunteer opportunities.

You Can Give: Your Entire Trip

Ready for a vacation wholly dedicated to service? Projects Abroad creates custom itineraries in 30 countries for families with kids as young as 4. Opportunities range from working on an organic farm in Togo to caring for sea turtles in Mexico to playing soccer with school kids in Argentina.

Or check out Global Family Travels, which organizes immersive trips in which families spend several days living within a community in countries like Nicaragua or India and help with projects like building a library. Whatever you choose to do, I’m sure you won’t regret it!

Tips for Planning a Volunteer Vacation

  • Consider Age. Many volunteer trips are really best for older elementary kids and tweens.
  • Plan Ahead. To get the most from your trip, introduce the country or region to the kids: Consult maps, explore books and videos, sample foods of the region, and even consider an online language course.
  • Crowdsource. Once you decide as a family on a destination and project, consider asking family and friends to donate supplies that you can bring along.
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