How to Volunteer While Traveling With Your Kids

Looking for meaningful travel? Volunteering lets you give back and grow as a family.

When Jodi Lipson's daughter was seven, the duo embarked on a mommy-daughter adventure — and no, they didn't travel to Disneyland. For one week, the pair did maintenance work at a hostel in Peru and helped local schoolchildren learn English. They soon worked on three more projects with volunteer organization Globe Aware in Guatemala, Cambodia, and Costa Rica. The experiences, said Lipson, who works in book publishing in D.C., have expanded the worldview of her now 13-year-old daughter.

"We've met so many people," she said. "We have a whole repertoire of experiences, feelings, and memories."

Mother and son visiting Cambodia.
Godong / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

As travel-hungry Americans start dusting off their passports, meaningful travel will top many bucket lists—and short-term volunteering should be on your radar. Volunteering abroad was ranked number three on a list of most-desired post-pandemic travel opportunities in a recent survey by Go Overseas, a resource site on meaningful travel.

"People are longing for the type of healing and meaning that our volunteer programs offer," said Michele Gran, co-founder and senior vice president of Global Volunteers.

For kids, volunteering can reveal a world beyond their screens and fuel a lifelong interest in giving. It also helps families to escape their comfort zone, bond, and immerse themselves in local cultures. Volunteering might even impact your child's future. A teenage volunteer with Earthwatch, a scientific organization that runs expeditions worldwide, wrote her college essay on her volunteer experience and was admitted to Stanford. She's now been admitted to several PhD programs in ornithology, which was the focus of her Earthwatch expedition.

Interested in volunteering with your family? Consider these possibilities:

One-day options

You can help others while staying at a hotel or taking a cruise. Crystal Cruises' "You Care, We Care" program provides volunteer shore excursions that range from planting trees at Iceland's Heidmork Natural Reserve to cleaning the banks of the Buñol River in Spain. The Ritz-Carlton offers service opportunities, known as Impact Experiences, as part of its Community Footprints program. These volunteer options are primarily designed for businesses and conferences, but hotels and resorts will also arrange them for families. Several families at the Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island, for example, recently helped clean area beaches.

Some Airbnb hosts work with local nonprofits to arrange "Social Impact" experiences. Your activity fee supports the nonprofit and you'll get an inside view of their work—and maybe even help out. In San Diego, one Airbnb host is a cofounder of Free Animal Doctor, a nonprofit crowdfunding platform that helps people care for their animals. For the Social Impact experience, guests exercise and socialize rescue dogs for adoption events.

You can also organize volunteer work on your own by asking local nonprofits, visitors bureaus, and tour companies about service opportunities. In Hawaii, giving back can even save you money: Travelers who volunteer during their visit can get a free night at participating hotels.

More-immersive volunteer gigs

For a deeper experience, consider a volunteer vacation, also known as voluntourism. Organizations such as Global Volunteers, Globe Aware, and Projects Abroad run one-week-or-longer family programs in the United States and abroad. Some allow children as young as six; others, like Earthwatch, have a minimum age of 15. Most organizations also provide cultural activities (such as language lessons) and tourism opportunities (the Lipsons visited Machu Picchu while volunteering in Peru).

Multiple organizations expect to relaunch projects in late 2021, though 2022 may be best for families interested in international volunteering, especially as countries start requiring COVID vaccinations, for example, it could create entry issues for children and teens who aren't vaccinated yet). Organizations such as Globe Aware, which has restarted programs in countries such as Costa Rica, Guatemala, Ghana, and Kenya, are taking steps beyond masks and social distancing to protect locals and volunteers: "All our projects, leisure activities, and meals are outside," says executive director Kimberly Haley-Coleman. Global Volunteers is offering programs in Montana, West Virginia, Poland, and Tanzania in July.

Thinking about a weeklong volunteer vacation? Take these steps:

Do your homework. Sites like Go Overseas, Go Abroad and Volunteer Forever post info and reviews as well as tips on family volunteering.

Ask questions. Inquire about subjects such as safety, food, and accommodations. Will you stay in a hotel? With a local family? Are there day trip opportunities to local communities if you're staying in a central location or major city?

Talk with a former volunteer. "Any reputable organization will give you a list of people to speak with," said Alia Pialtos, COO at Go Overseas. "Talking with someone about their experience is different from reading testimonials."

Understand the program fee. Organizations charge a fee that covers everything from lodging to transportation. Find out how your money is spent.

Scrutinize the screening process. Many organizations, for example, require a background check if you're working with kids. If they don't, that's a warning sign.

Ask about the work. Is it necessary? Does it match your talents? If you don't have construction skills you shouldn't be building houses. And make sure you're not taking work from locals.

Appreciate the intangibles. One of the biggest upsides of volunteering is that people talk who would never talk otherwise — which changes how we see each other.

Ken Budd is the author of The Voluntourist, an award-winning memoir about his search for meaning as a global volunteer. Follow his adventures on Twitter and Facebook.

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