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Volunteer Vacations

My 15yo daughter and I had a great week in Iceland this summer and are already discussing trip options for 2019!

Has anyone gone on a volunteer vacation? I like the idea of taking her on "service trip" I'm looking to book with a reputable company. I know kids that have done a service trip with companies that cater to students only. I'm looking for a company that books family trips. TIA.

Posted by
4291 posts

I ask you to research these voluntourism options and determine who you are doing it for. Reality is these are developed for 'feel good' expreiences and money into their bank. In essence, often contrived. At times, what a country or organization needs isn't what you think your daughter needs.
They say charity begins at home. You can help behind the scenes at your local food bank, often they have gardens attached or sorting food and stuff. There are many ways to teach your kids how to be charitable without paying hundreds of extra dollars to slap together peanut butter sandwiches at an orphanage in Peru. Sure, travel to Peru. Even find a place than needs things through programs like Stuff your Rucksack or Pack For A Purpose. Bring a suitcase, shop locally and then deliver it to the place from the list. This lets her see what another country offers (well meaning 'donations' from a different country may not blend in or comply to say, school requirements), she learns what a set amount of money can buy, and then delivers it in person to see where it goes. You might want to warn her, however, that deliveries may be kept to the principal and not spread amongst kids right away. Teachers or principal know best how to distribute.
At the end of the day there are less about needing you there and more about receiving money.
Sorry to sound harsh, but many countries are rethinking the value of voluntourism and making it harder for entry. Using a third party agency puts the money in their pocket not in the place of need. Even organizations like Habitat for Humanity can be humbling that we have little actual skills to offer, and it isn't always apprdciated by the recipients. It creates a sense of intitlement to your generousity that you might not like.
However, at the end of the day, it is your call. You might look at local religious affiliations who do work overseas. They tend to have a better finger on the pulse.

Posted by
7106 posts

I’ve been on service trips, but never organized by a tour company. I have gone to Costa Rica, Korea, and Rwanda. Each time it was because of the service opportunity and the agency was one I had an affiliation with over time.

I spent 4 weeks in South Korea with my daughter when she was your daughter’s age and it was a very special experience for both of us. We volunteered with an adoption agency that also provides social services. We worked at a center for the disabled. We received free room and board at the facility and worked Monday to Friday. Evenings and weekends we went exploring.

I strongly support your idea of doing service together. Start with agencies and organizations you already support or have an interest in. Do you go to a church that has a missions program? Is there a particular region of the world where the people have a special place in your heart? What skills or talents do you have that would benefit others?

The reality is that anyone involved in a service project receives far, far more than you could ever give in the experience. It is important to recognize this and make sure that your “help” is actually help.

Posted by
3380 posts

You might also consider a workaway. My son is currently on one at a farm in southwestern France...he is helping a family develop their permaculture farm and restoration of some of the buildings. Check out - there are hundreds of listings all over the world and you can use the search feature to look for specific things that you both might be interested in. Just about anything you might want to do is out there somewhere!

Posted by
2375 posts

Be careful what you consider for this trip. If you look at the aforementioned Workaway and follow this next link you will see the issue has arisen here before:

Many places, like Workaway, do not care if you have the correct visa status to volunteer in a country. They suggest (at least they suggested to a young person I know) that you pretend you are just arriving as a tourist. In many places, arriving as a tourist when you're really arriving to volunteer in exchange for room and board, is not legal.

Do your research and make sure you're going in a legitimate and legal way.

Posted by
4291 posts

I dislike the orphanage work. I volunteered in Africa a few years ago where I could offer a skill to train. Others worked at an orphanage. Some were well known for getting money, so non orphans were left there for chances of better opportunities. So abandoned by family. Then volunteers come and go. More abandonment. Sure they eventually figure it out, but one wonders what kind of trust is left by adulthood.

Posted by
7106 posts

Whoa.. assuming all orphanages in an entire continent are the same is a very big generalization.

The real point is to know and understand the specific site and organization you are considering working with. There is also a thought provoking book out entitled, “when helping hurts” that was required reading before I went to Rwanda.

Posted by
4291 posts

Carol, I am not assuming all places are alike and that wasn't the intent. It was to consider the emotions and psychological impact. Thankfully, the 'mommas' then to be there for the long haul.
Thank you for the book recommendation.

Posted by
361 posts

I can recommend Global Volunteers: (Be careful to get the right organization - There are others with similar names.)

I have served with them on 10 teams - and soon will leave for team #11. I have served in Greece, China (5 times), Poland (3 times) and Cuba, and will soon be in Tanzania. They go to many other countries as well. Their projects include teaching English to adults and children in different settings, participating in children's camps, gardening, working with the elderly, physical work projects and much more. Here is more description:

They have been doing this for many years (since 1984) and have a thoughtful approach. They believe that projects should be directed by the local people through their own local organizations. Volunteers are provided with a lot of support to help them be successful. A major focus is on person-to-person relationships and "waging peace" by helping people from across the world understand each other.

They encourage families to serve together. Here is a page on their website that describes family volunteering: You might like the Poland summer program. Volunteers provide English instruction to small groups of young teens at a two-week residential camp program (very informal teaching - lots of games, activities and discussion). On one of my teams, there was a grandmother who brought her 17-year-old granddaughter. The granddaughter had her own small group to teach and had a fabulous time! (The campers loved her too.) But many other programs have projects that might appeal to a teenager. You and your daughter should browse the site and find the place and project that suits you.

I enjoy a regular tourist trip, but have found that my volunteer trips are something special. Getting to know local people (other than tour guides, waiters and hotel staff), seeing non-touristy sights, pulling back to curtain on everyday life has been wonderful.

Posted by
1606 posts

Last year we took our 14 and 11 year olds to Guatemala on a mission trip with our church. We spent a week at an orphanage, staying in bunk houses. We WORKED: painted houses, dug and built foundations for showers, put on vacation bible schools, helped at a feeding program in a remote village (poverty unlike anything we had ever seen). Then ate dinner with the kids every night and played soccer with them afterwards. Exhausting! But both of my boys said it was the BEST trip we’ve ever taken. Better than a Disney cruise? Better than water parks? Yep! Life changing for all of us.

When researching, watch out for trips where you stay in fancy hotels and get bussed to your “service” sites. Others In our group had been on similar trips and they said they don’t really compare. They felt guilty about working all day and then going back to a high rise hotel with a/c. Our experience was definitely more immersive, and probably more impactful.

Posted by
845 posts

I've spent a lot of time in "third world" countries and helped build and rebuild buildings and infrastructure. I wouldn't consider that as a vacation. Especially since NGO personnel are becoming more of a target for enrichment of the tribe and/or political pawns than a helping hand.

Have you ever considered an archeology dig with a university or museum?

Posted by
86 posts

We started going to Guatemala with our family a number of years ago. Started with a service trip. I agree with the other posters - be sure to really research the group you go with and make sure they are really helping and not just having it be a 'pat yourself on the back' trip. We went a few times with an organization, then lead one of the trips, and really got a whole different view of it and realized that awe had probably been doing more harm than good. We now do work with individual community organizations and help with projects based on their needs (not the american version of what we think they need). We have just started a two year project with one group there, something that is very slow and not flashy, but is based completely on the community needs and will help make real change happen.
It is a great experience. I would highly recommend getting involved internationally. Just do it with open eyes :).

Posted by
307 posts

Depending on your age, Roads Scholar (formerly Elderhostel) offers service trips.
Check with Habitat for Humanity.
They are always looking for volunteers for projects.