Great Humanitarian Trips Around the World
But what amazes Donahue the most about his trips—which he took along with a U.S.-based humanitarian organization, Relief Workers International—is how much they changed him.
“I’d done a lot of traveling before,” says Donahue, “but this was something much bigger than just travel. I have never felt so rewarded for doing so little...and now I’m anxious to do more.”
These days, there are more opportunities than ever for combining travel with humanitarian outreach. The U.S. alone has dozens of organizations arranging “voluntourism” trips—some of them broad-reaching nonprofit outfits with branches all over the globe; others smaller, grassroots operations that specialize in a particular culture or destination.
The programs these organizations offer run the gamut from exotic (living and working in indigenous Amazon rainforest villages) to familiar (helping to build houses for Gulf Coast Americans who lost their homes during Hurricane Katrina); and from exhilarating (herding among Mongolian nomads) to harrowing (teaching basic life skills to orphaned Kenyan street children). But all of them share a common goal: improving lives in the communities where they work.
Doing this, of course, requires certain sacrifices on the part of the program participants. Volunteers doing humanitarian work are nearly always responsible for getting themselves to their program destinations; they also pay program fees that cover their room and board and supplies needed for community outreach (like medicines and schoolbooks). Since they often live in the same disadvantaged communities where they work, volunteers also cope with varying degrees of creature discomfort; bucket baths and outhouses are the norm at some programs, while others are a hike or drive away from the nearest phone or Internet connection.
If numbers are any indication, though, these inconveniences aren’t getting in the way of would-be voluntourists; in fact, registration for humanitarian programs has skyrocketed. G.A.P. Adventures and i-to-i, for example—two relatively new organizations—have seen program participation double almost every year since their inception in 2005. Meanwhile, one of the longest-running U.S.-based operators, Cross-Cultural Solutions, started out with a single volunteer in 1995—and now places more than 4,000 a year in 12 different countries. The draw of humanitarian travel, say program directors, is becoming obvious to more and more people, especially in developed Western countries like the U.S.
“People who volunteer with us find their ideas of the world have been transformed,” says Kam Santos, director of communications for Cross-Cultural Solutions. “They wind up coming back again and again.... We have people who’ve gone to eight different countries with us. This is their new way to travel.”
Catherine McMillan, a spokesperson for another veteran U.S. organization, Globe Aware, agrees. “People are realizing that they can only really understand the challenges and see the beauty in a culture once they make some personal connections there,” she says.
“I hear it again and again from volunteers,” says McMillan. “They say, ’I thought I would be traveling to go help people—and instead, I feel like I got even more than I gave.’”
Ghana Community Outreach
What It’s About: Though Ghana is considered one of the friendliest and most accessible of African countries (it was the first on the continent to gain independence, and most of the population speaks English), many Ghanaian communities—like those in the easterly Volta region—suffer from poverty and lack of educational and medical resources. Volunteers who assist in local orphanages, schools, businesses and health-care centers can make a difference in these communities.
What it Involves: Cross-Cultural Solutions first established volunteer operations in the Volta region in 1998—and since then volunteers have participated in a wide range of projects in several different Ewe tribal communities. These include providing childcare at orphanages, teaching or assisting at schools, and instructing community residents in subjects ranging from computer technology to proper nutrition. Since volunteers live right in the communities where they work, they also get to experience Ewe cultural traditions—like welcome celebrations, weddings, and even funerals—firsthand.
Roughing-It Rating: Low to medium. Volunteers stay at a “home base” in the Volta region, with basic but comfortable dorm rooms, phone access, cooked meals, and modern bathrooms—but no hot water. Occasional water shortages can also require the use of bucket-water baths rather than showers.
Cost: $2,994 for three weeks
More Information: Cross-Cultural Solutions
Post-Hurricane Home Building, U.S. Gulf Coast
What It’s About: When Hurricane Katrina devastated coastal communities in Louisiana, Alabama, and Mississippi, Habitat for Humanity was on the scene almost immediately, doing what the organization is best known for: building and rebuilding homes. Now, three years later, HFH has established more than a dozen community-affiliate volunteer centers throughout the Gulf Coast region; together, they’ve built more than 1,300 houses since 2005.
What it Involves: Building and repairing homes for the thousands of displaced Gulf region families who still need them. Volunteers don’t need prior building skills; they’re guided and supervised by construction project leaders and also work alongside local residents whose homes were lost or damaged in the hurricanes (putting “sweat equity” into the building projects is one way they earn eligibility to have their own houses rebuilt).
Roughing-It Rating: Low. Several of HFH’s regional outreach centers have full-service “volunteer villages,” with comfortable bunkhouses, modern bathrooms, cafeterias, and lounges with TV and Internet access.
Cost: Varies by regional program; contact Habitat for Humanity for pricing
More Information: Habitat for Humanity
Touring and Community Service, Cambodia
What It’s About: Beautiful but war-torn Cambodia is still suffering after the decades of genocide and oppression it endured under the Khmer Rouge regime. The most dangerous legacy the conflict has left are the millions of unexploded land mines still buried across the Cambodian countryside, which have caused injury and limb loss to tens of thousands of local residents. Travelers who spend tourist dollars visiting the country’s major attractions—like the extraordinary Angkor Wat temple complex—and who also perform volunteer service to help the victims of land-mine accidents can aid the Cambodian people on two fronts.
What it Involves: G.A.P. volunteers spend about half of their trip seeing Cambodia’s sights—including the capital city of Phnom Penh, Angkor Wat, and the beaches of Sihanoukville. But they also spend five days volunteering on community projects in villages around Siem Reap—including the construction of wheelchairs for disabled land-mine victims.
Roughing-It Rating: Low. Volunteers stay and eat at a variety of small hotels and simple guesthouses around Cambodia, all of which have double-occupancy rooms, modern private baths, TV, and phone access.
Cost: Starts at $1,719 for 14 days
More Information: G.A.P. Adventures
Indigenous Amazon Community Outreach, Ecuador
What It’s About: The indigenous Quichua people in the remote rainforests of central Ecuador face enormous challenges in maintaining their traditional way of life. Quichua communities—which have occupied the Amazon rainforest for hundreds of years—are increasingly threatened by jungle deforestation (as well as other problems related to poverty and lack of education). By establishing reforestation and sustainable agriculture projects, and by providing basic schooling for their children, the Quichua have a better chance at preserving their culture and improving their daily existence.
What it Involves: Mostly outdoor—and quite dirty—work. Volunteers work alongside the Quichua in villages in the Puni-Rumiyacu region (in the wide swath of territory known as El Oriente) to clear fields and pathways using machetes, haul soil, and plant crops like coffee, yucca, and corn. A Broader View also places some volunteers in rural community primary schools, where they help to teach Quichua children.
Roughing-It Rating: High. Volunteers must be proficient in conversational Spanish, and also willing to tolerate extreme heat, copious mosquitoes, and primitive amenities (outhouses and composite toilets, bucket-water baths). On the plus side, many volunteers live and take meals with local host families, which allows them to personally share in the Quichua’s rich indigenous culture.
Cost: $895 for 1 week
More Information: A Broader View Volunteers
Mobile Medical and Eye Camps, Gujarat, India
What It’s About: India’s westernmost state, Gujarat, has more than 500,000 blind residents—many of them living in remote villages along the starkly beautiful desert plains and salt pans of the Rann of Kutch. Thousands of these villagers require only simple cataract surgery—which can be done in a single day in mobile eye camps—to have their sight restored; others can similarly benefit from basic medical care and prescription medications.
What it Involves: While Relief Workers International volunteers do get to spend time exploring Gujarat’s cultural attractions—including the city of Ahmedabad, the ancient fortifications of Halvad, and a wildlife sanctuary—most program time is spent assisting the organization’s team of doctors, who administer to the needs of ailing villagers. Volunteer duties include registering patients for eye surgery and other treatments, helping with aftercare treatment, managing the pharmacy table, and distributing basic medical supplies in several different villages and schools.
Roughing-It Rating: Low to medium. Volunteers begin their program with a night in a luxury hotel in Ahmedabad; after that, a tented camp on the outskirts of the Rann—which is basic, but offers prepared meals and daily yoga—becomes home base.
Cost: $5,950 for 12 days
More Information: Relief Workers International
Stove-Building in Central America
What It’s About: Indigenous and rural families living in Guatemalan, Honduran, and Nicaraguan communities have traditionally cooked over open fires set inside their homes—an arrangement that severely compromises household air quality, causes vision problems and respiratory disease, and requires families to overspend time and resources obtaining firewood. The construction of simple cement-and-brick stoves with chimneys—a project that can be completed by a team of volunteers in a week—markedly improves the families’ quality of life.
What it Involves: During the one-week program, volunteers spend about six hours a day working alongside a local mason—mixing cement, laying brick—to build a stove for a single family. The rest of the day is spent in cultural-immersion activities, like Spanish instruction and visits to museums and plantations; or adventure sports like hiking, rock climbing, or horseback riding.
Roughing-It Rating: Low. Volunteers stay and take meals with host families in towns near the communities where they work; they are given their own bedrooms and share common areas (including bathrooms with modern plumbing) with members of the household.
Cost: Starts at $1,190 per week
More Information: Global Vision International
Childcare and HIV/AIDS Outreach, Costa Rica
What It’s About: The impoverished communities around the Costa Rican town of Cartago (about 45 minutes southeast of San Jose) are home to several orphanages, schools, and group homes for children; there’s also a residential center for local adults with HIV/AIDS. These group programs make do with a chronic lack of staff and resources—and so are grateful for the assistance of volunteers.
What it Involves: A positive attitude and lots of energy. Volunteers spend several hours a day helping with orphans and foster children—many of whom live in crowded group homes supervised by tías (or “aunties”). Some of these homes have as many as 30 children, and so there’s lots of cooking and cleaning to be done, schoolwork to help with, and games to be played. Other volunteers are placed to assist with HIV/AIDS patients who live in a residential treatment center and in communities around Cartago; while these tasks sometimes involve serving meals and helping patients with physical therapy, just visiting and talking (in Spanish) is even more important. During their downtime—what there is of it—volunteers can also take Spanish and salsa dancing lessons, and take field trips to local coffee plantations and museums.
Roughing-It Rating: Low. Volunteers live at a comfortable “home base” in Cartago, with clean dorm rooms, cooked meals, an office for Cross-Cultural Solutions staff, and wireless Internet access.
Cost: Starts at $1,765 per week
More Information: Cross-Cultural Solutions
Roma Community Outreach, Romania
What It’s About: Historically known as “gypsies,” the Roma people live in communities scattered all over Europe. Though they’re one of the most widely dispersed ethnic minorities on the Continent (with origins tracing back to 16th-century India), they remain one of the poorest, least educated, and most stigmatized. Most Roma live in shantytowns on the outskirts of European cities, in ramshackle encampments ill-suited for harsh weather and proper hygiene.
What it Involves: Helping Roma communities around the Romanian town of Brasov (in the Transylvania region north of Bucharest) with a variety of life-improvement projects. These include building structurally sound, properly insulated houses for Roma families; teaching community members basic construction skills, and helping Roma children at local community centers and kindergartens.
Roughing-It Rating: Low. Volunteers stay and take meals in a newly built community center near Brasov, which has dorm-style rooms, brand-new bathrooms, and a communal kitchen and lounge.
Cost: Starts at $1,390 per week
More Information: Globe Aware
Nakuru Children Outreach, Kenya
What It’s About: On the outskirts of the Rift Valley town of Nakuru (about two hours north of Nairobi), hundreds of Kenyan street children live in shocking conditions—many without families, in caves or rudimentary shelters on the premises of the town dump. These children spend their days foraging for food among the garbage; most have health problems and little or no schooling. Volunteers who help to build—or teach at—community centers for these children can immeasurably improve their daily lives.
What it Involves: Volunteers are assigned to a range of projects at Nakuru community centers—which may include helping children with basic hygiene, doing crafts and playing games with toddlers, and teaching English and math to older kids so they can qualify to enter schools in their community.
Roughing-It Rating: Medium to high. Although i-to-i volunteers stay with host families in fairly comfortable homes in Nakuru, visiting with children who live in such extreme poverty can be harrowing. Volunteers interested in teaching English (a valuable language for the children) can take a free 40-hour TEFL course online before they travel to Nakuru.
Cost: $1,290 for two weeks
More Information: i-to-i
Nomad Community Outreach, Mongolia
What It’s About: The nomadic herders of the Mongolian steppes live a simple, hardworking life—which is largely spent moving, feeding, and tending to their herds of livestock amid some of the world’s most spectacular scenery. While it’s an existence some might call idyllic, it requires long days of hard labor, and extra hands are always appreciated.
What it Involves: Farmwork. Projects Abroad volunteers help nomad families with daily tasks like herding yaks and cattle, mucking out horse and camel enclosures, and milking sheep and goats. They also produce dairy products like butter and cheese, prepare meals, and play with the communities’ many children.
Roughing-It Rating: Medium to high. Volunteers live with host families in large round tents called gers, which are rustic but—surprisingly—often have TV sets powered by car batteries and solar panels. The nomadic life becomes much more difficult during the cold-weather months, when temperatures can plummet to -70°F. (It’s not recommended that volunteers visit during the winter, but those who welcome the challenge are fully outfitted with warm pelts and clothing from local Mongolian markets.)
Cost: $3,045 for two weeks
More Information: Projects Abroad