Imagine a family trip spent strolling a gorgeous Mexican beach and looking for sea turtles. That would be a good vacation, and an easy one to sell to the kids.
Now, imagine if you were also trying to find the turtles’ tiny eggs to re-bury and hide from poachers intent on selling the eggs as delicacies. That would turn your good trip into something different – a volunteering vacation, also known as a voluntour.
The sea turtle project is one of many overseen by Projects Abroad, which has placed volunteers in 24 destinations worldwide. Because the projects are so varied, families who want to find the right volunteer match should have a “long and serious discussion with us about what you hope to get out of the experience,” says Dr. Peter Slowe, Projects Abroad’s founder and director. On a trip the organization coordinated for two families volunteering at an orphanage in Moldova, for instance, Slowe says one of the most meaningful services was the chance for the voluntouring kids and orphaned children to play together.
When considering a voluntour, one important question to ask is, “How able are we as a family to be in a situation that makes us uncomfortable and that we haven’t seen before?” says Robert Rosenthal, the director of communications for VolunteerMatch, which pairs volunteers with nonprofit organizations. Once you identify an organization you like, investigate whether it has a good track record for protecting families as well as coordinating group trips. Two organizations Rosenthal recommends for its family-based volunteering are Cross Cultural Solutions and ProWorld.
“A lot of our projects focus on helping families in the local communities where we work and the chance to have families helping other families is immeasurable,” says Adam Saks, director of university relations for ProWorld. In Peru several summers ago, a family of four volunteered in Urubamba for one month. “The children were both in their teens and the family worked together on our cleaner burning stove project,” Saks says, which helped reduce wood consumption as well as smoke inhalation-related illness in the community.
When you voluntour you’ll almost always have to pay all your own expenses, which can run into thousands of dollars overseas. Saks notes that ProWorld’s programs run about $1800 for the first two weeks and $500 “for each week after that per person, although if the children are under 12, the
pricing is less for them, about half.”
If you’re looking to get your feet wet with a voluntour, you don’t have to take a long trip – that turtle project would fit into a two-week vacation. You don’t even have to go overseas. If you’re interested in green travel and sustainability there’s a real need for volunteers in U.S. coastal areas and parks, says Rosenthal. For instance, helping to pull weeds from San Francisco’s Crissy Field and Presidio Shoreline for a few hours may not be glamorous, but it’s an experience that could be easily tucked into a family vacation (and would certainly make for a memorable one).