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How to Give Back with a Volunteer Vacation
Dorothy Engler felt blessed. She had fulfilling work as a Montessori teacher and the satisfaction of seeing her older child enter medical school and the younger one graduate college. But it wasn’t until last spring that the 54-year-old from Bloomington, Minn. felt ready to finally do something she had wanted to do for over a decade.
Since seeing the pictures of Romanian orphans that hit the news during that government’s collapse 12 years ago, Engler had it in the back of her mind that she would someday find a way to help. In March, she found it, opting to forego an annual pleasure trip in favor of a working vacation with Minnesota-based Global Volunteers. She traveled to a home and clinic for abandoned and disabled children in Romania and spent eight-hour days feeding, changing and cuddling a group of 10 infants and toddlers with three other volunteers.
"Actually seeing the conditions was what moved me the most,” says Engler, who plans to return next spring. “The European influence is just starting there — it’s still primitive. I deal with kids here in the Minnesota area in my work, but this was totally different.”
Voluntourists Seek Life-Changing Trips
Engler and Global Volunteers, a 25-year-old nonprofit dedicated to arranging volunteer work trips, are part of a movement that’s growing as more people seek ways to give back to the world. Nearly 3.5 million Americans, or about 3 percent of all tourists, take annual volunteer vacations, according to Forrester Research. And 11 percent of Travelocity members surveyed in February 2007 expressed interest in voluntourism, up 90 percent from a survey six months earlier.
Volunteering in general starts with an “innate desire in all of us to give back and add meaning to our lives,” says Global Volunteers founder and CEO Bud Philbrook. He attributes the increase in popularity of volunteer vacations largely to increased awareness from media reports, a growing number of websites dedicated to the topic, and especially to word-of-mouth. Today, he says, about half of new volunteers come to the organization through referrals from friends.
The terms “volunteer vacation” or “voluntourism” can mean anything from a pleasure trip that includes a few hours of work to a working trip that might also feature some sightseeing. Typical voluntourism trips last a week or two, the length of most people‘s vacations, but can last for a season or even a year.
Until recently, volunteer vacations have been the domain of nonprofit volunteer organizations — but such trips are now being added to the rosters of for-profit travel companies as well. For-profit organizations often split journeys into one week of work and one week of a planned adventure or cultural experience, says Clemmons, who founded and runs www.voluntourism.org.
Since its inception, Global Volunteers has taken more than 25,000 volunteers on volunteer trips. The group expects to lead at least 3,000 of them on volunteer vacations this year, up about 12 percent from last year, on trips to 21 countries — focusing on projects aimed at bettering the lives of children. Other organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, focus their efforts in areas including improving the lives of animals, cleaning up the environment and working for social change.
For some, volunteer vacations are an expansion of the volunteering they already do in their communities, Philbrook adds. For others, the trips provide a way to fit volunteering into busy lives spent balancing family, work and personal commitments.
Among the most popular destinations for Global Volunteers’ travelers are Romania and Peru, Philbrook says, largely because those missions offer the most chance for interaction with children in need. In addition to caring directly for children, Global Volunteers’ missions focus on teaching English, math and other academic skills; building and maintaining community structures that house families and provide school space for the children; and providing healthcare to kids and their families.
Another organization, Globe Aware, takes its volunteers on week-long missions in 14 countries, and focuses on projects that have one of two goals — they must either promote culture or promote sustainability. Within those goals are a host of available options, from teaching English in Vietnam to digging wells in Ghana. Similar projects are available in spots as remote as Nepal and as close to home as Mexico.
Because we have a more globally connected world, it’s just more in our face,” says David Clemmons, founder of www.voluntourism.org. “We’re aware of it to such a degree that going out and participating in an activity that’s wholly self-indulgent is very difficult, because we’re starting to realize that what we do for ourselves has an impact on someone else someplace else.”
Tips on Choosing the Right Volunteer Vacation for You
Some volunteers begin with a destination in mind, wanting to see a part of the world they’ve always wondered about, Philbrook says. Others start with the kind of work they want to do, and they'll go anywhere to do it. The rest simply go where the most urgent need is.
If you're considering a volunteer vacation, start by evaluating your own special skills and determine how you can best help. People with construction skills might best help out by building clinics, for example, while doctors, nurses and dentists would be better suited to staffing the clinics once they’re built.
Larry Beck, a professor at San Diego State University’s school of hospitality and tourism management, recently took his first volunteer vacation with Globe Aware. He traveled to Peru for a week of digging drainage ditches, building fences, and teaching English to poor and orphaned children.
Beck chose this trip for a few different reasons. He had always wanted to see Peru, and his community-based volunteer work had included working with kids at the San Diego Rescue Mission. Plus, he had a buddy who was interested in going along. All the pieces came together in his volunteer vacation.
“It was a very powerful experience,” Beck says. “I was working with folks in ways that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.”
Many trips don’t require special skills. For example, anyone with a firm grasp of the English language can teach it to others, Philbrook says. Engler is a trained teacher, but anyone with empathy and a lap can help when it comes to bringing love into the lives of children.
UC San Diego has found a way to help prospective voluntourists decide, by offering several low-cost online classes to help people determine whether volunteer vacations are right for them and provide key information on what to expect and how to select the right trip, says university spokesman Henry DeVries.
“People who have gone through our training have gone to Thailand to teach people to use computers, they’ve gone to Mexico to teach English, they’ve traveled to help people with medical care,” DeVries says. “When I searched the Web, I found a lot of for-profits and nonprofits doing this, but not a lot were telling you how to choose the right trip for you. We felt we needed to be an objective third party.”
There are volunteer vacation opportunities for just about every budget. Global Volunteers offers trips ranging from about $800 for a one-week work trip within the United States to $3,000 for two weeks in Italy. Fees for international trips begin at about $1,700, Philbrook says. Most trip fees do not include airfare, vaccines, visas or spending money, but they do typically include room, board and transportation to and from the work site. Fees to a nonprofit organization are tax deductible.
Price tags also vary by accommodations and the nature of the trip, says Clemmons. Folks can find cheap volunteer adventures, he says, but they must realize that the cheaper the trip, the more work it involves. On less-expensive trips, volunteers also typically live in more rudimentary accommodations.
Most of Globe Aware’s trips cost between $1,200 and $1,400. The least expensive is a week in Thailand for $1,090, working with Buddhist monks to provide aide for children and the elderly. The priciest are trips to Vietnam and Romania to do construction or childcare, at $1,390 each. Again, airfare isn’t included.
Clemmons advises everyone to take their time and do their homework to find the right fit for a volunteer vacation, and to keep an eye out for some red flags along the way.
You might want to pass on a particular trip or group if:
- An organization is not willing to put you in touch with others who have taken the trip.
- A group’s website isn’t transparent about who is running the organization and how to contact them.
- A price point seems too good to be true compared to what other groups are charging for a similar experience.
- An organization requires cash payments and doesn’t take credit cards.
- An organization is too new to have a track record. It may be perfectly reputable, but there’s a real chance the bugs haven’t been worked out yet, Clemmons says.
- You discover that too much of your fees are going to pay for U.S.-based marketing and administrative costs and not enough is going to the community you want to serve.
Photo courtesy of North By Northeast Tours. All Rights Reserved.