Traveling With Purpose: Volunteer Vacations

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Summer 2013

Three years ago Kimberly Haley-Coleman and her two young daughters, then 4 and 6, took an unlikely trip. They traveled from Dallas, Texas, to southeast Ghana and immersed themselves in the local culture while building educational facilities for the children there.


Haley-Coleman — Executive Director of Globe Aware, a nonprofit organization that plans volunteer vacations in Asia, Latin America, Ghana and Romania — says trips like this have instilled in her daughters a unique cultural awareness. “They don’t take for granted that their way of doing things is necessarily the right way,” she adds.


The volunteer travel market, also known as “voluntourism,” offers an increasing diversity of niches for such philanthropic-minded travelers. “Volunteer vacations are definitely on more people’s radar,” says International Volunteer Programs Association (IVPA) Executive Director Genevieve Brown. Every year thousands of travelers roll up their sleeves and lend a hand on projects ranging from wildlife conservation in Kenya to assembling wheelchairs for landmine victims in Cambodia.


Here are answers to some of the most common questions about volunteer vacations.

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Summer 2013

Q: What are volunteer vacations?


A: Volunteer vacations typically involve a short-term trip to a developing country, during which participants work on local projects. You might not change the world in a week, but the industry’s overall contributions are significant. In Kenya, wildlife numbers have climbed thanks in part to ecotourism businesses that support local conservancies. Lion numbers, for example, have risen 250 percent since 2000. Opportunities closer to home also exist: Last year, vacationers built and maintained more than 310 miles of trail across the United States through the American Hiking Society. In most cases, no special skills are required.


Q: How much do trips cost, and where does the money go?


A: Trips cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars before airfare to more than $4,000. Costs might include:


  • Transportation to and from the airport
  • Food
  • Lodging
  • Project materials
  • Cultural excursions or special events
  • Travel insurance

Program cost structures vary. Some donate money to causes or absorb it in their overhead, while others invest it back into communities.


Haley-Coleman recommends programs where costs include local bilingual staff members who can address your needs throughout your stay.


Q: How do I choose the right volunteer vacation program?


A: Whatever your passion, hobby or skill set, there’s a program to match it. For example, Floating Doctors, a non-profit medical relief team dedicated to reducing the burden of disease in developing communities, needs volunteers with specific skills or experience in the medical field. Active travelers are finding a foothold in the adventure travel market, which combines activities like hiking or trekking with volunteering.


Age or disabilities needn’t be a barrier; groups like Cross-Cultural Solutions, which coordinates volunteer abroad trips, offer programs to meet those particular needs. For children, Brown recommends programs with community interaction. “You want something safe but also something that opens their eyes,” she says.


To fully take advantage of the trip, inquire about downtime if there are other activities you would like to enjoy.


And whatever your interests, skill set or life situation, Brown recommends programs that work directly with communities on projects that provide lasting benefits. For instance, in Peru many locals make fires on the dirt floors of their homes, which can lead to illness and other problems. So volunteers work to build stoves for them. “A stove pulls out the majority of the smoke, takes 80 percent less fuel, helps with deforestation and prevents upper respiratory illness,” Haley-Coleman says.


Additional Volunteer Vacation Resources




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Summer 2013

Q: How can I be sure the trip is in my comfort zone?


A: Even if you're open to stepping out of your comfort zone, it’s important to consider the kind of environment that’s suitable for you. Accommodations vary greatly between programs, from homestays and modest hotels to luxurious, high-end cottages. Decide if you'd be comfortable in rural settings or staying in facilities without running water. “Even if you extensively travel abroad, you’re going to experience culture shock,” Brown says.


Organizations should be able to provide ample information on their trips and might even put you

in contact with past participants. Asking these three questions will also help assess the quality of the program:


  1. How are the projects chosen?
  2. How long have you worked in the community?
  3. Why did you choose this particular community?

A well-researched volunteer trip can be as personally fulfilling as it is culturally enlightening. The right combination can be a real adventure.


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