Ask any twenty-something if they’ve ever gone on (or at least considered) a vacation that incorporates volunteer work and the answer will most likely be a resounding “yes”. Billed as a way to do good and meet new people while seeing the world on a budget, companies have been springing up all over the globe to cater to these conscientious travelers.
Traveling volunteers, or “voluntourism”, has taken a hit and is often portrayed in the media in a negative light. The premise is that young adults (though individuals of any age can and do participate) pay a fee to cover lodging, meals, and training and sign up for a project for a certain amount of time – ranging from a few days to up to one year (the famed “gap year”). Projects range from medical care and teaching to construction and conservation, in any country you can think of.
Critics argue that traveling volunteers use the experience as a mere photo opportunity, a chance to be the hero and take credit where it isn’t due. However, there are two sides to every story and, in this case, multiple sides when you take into account the variety of destinations and opportunities.
We took a peek at some of these programs and found impact in numbers, as well as smiles. From animal care in Guatemala to childcare in Zambia, here are a few of our favorites that demonstrate the amazing positivity traveling volunteers can create.
20 Making A New Friend At An Animal Sanctuary
The pictures of volunteers cradling koalas, walking with elephants, or bottle-feeding baby goats during their service experience might make the whole thing seem like a lot of fun and games.
While that part is particularly cuddly and the animals are without a doubt adorable, volunteers also help with day to day operations at sanctuaries. There are enclosures to renovate or construct, weeds to be pulled, and areas to be cleaned (and then cleaned again). Volunteers that choose to go to a wildlife sanctuary through programs like Go Eco in South Africa are definitely getting their hands dirty.
19 Health And Wellness Check
Proving that it is possible to create meaningful relationships and leave a lasting impact, no matter how short the duration, medical professionals have long been taking advantage of traveling volunteer opportunities.
Programs like Global Volunteers recruit physicians and nurse practitioners for their health care project in Tanzania. Skilled volunteers assist with health screenings at local clinics, provide education on disease prevention, and travel out into the community to diagnose and treat various conditions.
One clinic in Tanzania, specifically, serves nearly 20,000 residents. The need is large and is met at least in part through the gracious efforts of these volunteers.
18 Hand In Hand, To School We Go
According to Two Dusty Travelers, also known as Emily and Aaron, there is such a thing as “ethical traveling” and we should all be doing more of it.
The pair uses their website to post travel tips (budget hacks, packing, red flags to look out for), as well as research on top destinations to help you plan your trip. They even offer questions that you should ask yourself before embarking on a voluntourism excursion so you can properly identify your motivations and intentions (hint: if you aren’t doing this for the right reasons, you should stay home).
Their tagline is “travel like it matters” which, based on their blog, they certainly do.
17 Sharing Smiles And Cultural Traditions
One of the greatest takeaways from a trip abroad are the lessons learned from locals. For traveling volunteers, that is no different. They are exposed to a culturally immersive experience that travel blogger, Lena Papadopoulos, calls “learning service”. Essentially, through learning, one is able to serve – not the other way around. This type of learning cannot happen in a classroom or within the confines of one’s own geographic borders.
It takes some courage for people to step out of their comfort zone and open themselves up to other ways of thinking and living, so in that regard traveling volunteers definitely deserve some credit for taking the initiative.
16 Home Is Where The Heart Is
Since their inception in 1976, Habitat for Humanity has helped over thirteen million people attain shelter by building homes around the world. The organization is known for seeking to do more good than harm, always finding out what a community (and individuals in that community) need before making decisions about a course of action. Last year alone, they had active build sites in seventy-three countries.
Habitat’s international volunteer program is one of the most renowned. Volunteers go through a careful vetting process and offer skills they already possess, which encompasses everything from construction to social media to volunteer management. Each volunteer assignment is typically six to twelve months. Through their efforts to limit the constant turnover of volunteers, they epitomize responsible travel.
15 Learning Can Be Fun
Being entrusted with a child is serious business and not to be taken lightly. Bloggers like Lena Papadopoulos will caution against taking on any volunteer project that doesn’t match your skill set, especially when it comes to children. That said, there are a number of companies that help match prospective volunteers with childcare projects and report success.
For example, visitors to goabroad.com will be introduced to programs like Love Volunteers and Oyster Worldwide. Targeted toward individuals just starting their education in early childhood development, these programs can provide hands-on experience.
If you think you have something to bring to the table, whether you have years of experience or are just starting out, don’t sell yourself short.
14 Nurturing A Seedling
Volunteers with Greenpop see the results of their work almost immediately. As part of the organization’s community greening day project, volunteers increase social, environmental, and economic factors in Cape Town by planting indigenous trees. While there, volunteers pick up any trash in the area, further beautifying the region. It may seem small, but Greenpop volunteers just passing through help ensure Cape Town is preserved for future generations to enjoy and benefit from.
For a longer-term project, Greenpop teams up with local NGO, Roots, to offer internships in horticulture, business development, fundraising, and event coordination.
13 There's Always Time For Play
With so many websites claiming to be the best when it comes to supporting traveling volunteers (yes, you will want to make sure you have support should anything go awry), it can be hard to pick one.
To help you along in your decision making, there’s Grassroots Volunteering. This database allows you to set filters consistent with the region you want to travel to, the type of project you want to undertake, the total cost you are willing to spend, and the duration of travel. With such a user-friendly tool, before you know it you might be making a difference in the life of a child (the reward is that ear to ear smile).
12 A Demonstration In Clean Water For All
Being able to travel in any capacity is a privilege that not all are afforded. Another privilege that we might take for granted is the relative ease at which we have access to clean water. It is estimated that nearly seven million people around the world die each year due to a lack of clean drinking water and unsanitary conditions affiliated with a lack of water.
Organizations like Pure Water for the World and others focus on providing clean water without disrupting a community’s way of life. Their solutions are sustainable and volunteers will work around the clock to install water filtration systems and lay water pipes.
11 Serving During A Time Of Need
Nothing tends to bring people together closer and more quickly than a disaster. During times of tragedy, we look to leaders in the field to help assess the damage, respond with immediate necessities, and stay long after the initial incident to help put things back together. It’s this third piece, helping to rebuild an already resilient community, that All Hands and Hearts focuses on.
With a special interest in rebuilding schools that have been destroyed, All Hands and Hearts has helped over 105,000 school children return to their educational pursuits by rebuilding more than two hundred schools. Volunteers are essential to the mission, with over 51,000 of them playing some role in getting those kids back to school.
10 Community Food Outreach To Feed The Soul
People from all walks of life can bond over food. Sharing a meal together is a simple act that nourishes our bodies, feeds our minds, and unites us past any other differences we may have. Through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or WWOOF, volunteers can do all of this and more.
Matched with an organic farm host site, volunteers live and learn a healthy lifestyle that helps contribute to a healthy planet. Knowing how to plant, harvest, and prepare organic foods, they spread the lessons into the communities they are serving. They work alongside locals on food outreach initiatives to target the most in need and keep returning to continue building those relationships.
9 Mapping The Waters For Marine Conservation
For volunteers that would rather spend their time on (or in) the water rather than land, there’s the marine conservation project through Global Vision International.
Volunteers travel to locations such as Fiji, Mexico, and Thailand to collect ecosystem data and help protect at-risk species. The information collected on sea turtle hatchlings, coral, and other marine life is used by local organizations and governments to advance policies and bring awareness to the issues.
Volunteers even have an opportunity to take professional dive training while they learn about the importance of conservation and minimizing their carbon footprint.
8 Taking To The Shelters To Help Man's Best Friend
Not all volunteer service needs to have a human component, necessarily. For volunteers with a soft side for dogs, cats, and other friendly creatures (which is really all of us), there are plenty of opportunities to help out.
One company in particular, International Volunteer HQ, offers over two hundred projects in more than forty locations. One such project that is expanding rapidly due to high demand after groundbreaking signups in Guatemala is animal care. Volunteers can serve in an animal shelter to help with cleaning kennels, adoption events, monitoring animals after surgery, and even grooming.
So, if spending your vacation with puppies and kittens sounds appealing, this might be the place for you.
7 Gather Around For Storytime
The United Nations, an organization many of us are familiar with for their humanitarian efforts, seeks volunteers every year to travel and assist them on the ground around the world.
United Nations Volunteers is particularly interested in volunteers that have a background in community development, human rights, resettlement, political affairs, and engineering. As opposed to many other travel volunteer programs, the UN requires prospective volunteers to be at least twenty-five years of age and have a college degree. They also must have at least two years of work experience.
By serving with such a reputable organization, volunteers know their impacts will be felt long after they leave.
6 Do The Hokey Pokey
Just like a regular vacation, a lot of planning, preparation, and research needs to go into a volunteer trip. Also just like a regular vacation, there are tricky logistics to figure out like visas and airport transfers. You might be exhausted from the travel and feeling a little intimidated as you make adjustments, but you’ll have to jump right in. Once the project starts, you will forget all of that. This is especially true if you’ve chosen a project that serves children.
According to The Muse, the best way to make an impact during your volunteer trip is to stay relevant and realistic. Being around kids can make you feel like a kid again. Taking time out of your day to do something special (albeit silly) with those kids is going to mean more than you know. There’s your relevance.
5 A Life Well Lived And Respected
When you start to take a look at the breakdown in numbers that occurs when combining traveling and volunteering, you can begin to see just how many people are putting someone else before themselves. International Volunteer HQ has engaged over 90,000 volunteers in the last ten years. That’s just one company, so you can multiply that exponentially to understand the total number of people serving.
One of the more popular and powerful projects that IVHQ offers is elder care. Through it, volunteers provide recreation, stimulation, and operational services to seniors at elderly care centers. Staff at the centers have noted improvements in the seniors that take part in the companionship.
Spending time with those older and wiser than us can also broaden our understanding of what it means to serve and sacrifice.
4 Stretch To The Skies And Sing To The Birds
Volunteers working with children through Voluntary Services Overseas will be tasked with getting the kids active and motivated through arts, music, and sports.
With issues such as malnutrition and poverty plaguing many of the locations served, activities that are considered “non-essential” to survival are often not emphasized as much as they could be. However, the children do benefit from regular exercise and a chance to express themselves through song and dance.
These efforts are part of the organization’s mission to provide an enriching education and improved quality of life to children around the world.
3 The Student Becomes The Teacher
Blogger Lena Papadopoulos comes up often when discussing travel volunteering. That’s because her points and theories resonate with former travelers, future travelers, and those that have been the beneficiaries of these volunteer efforts. She frequently mentions the harm that can be caused by volunteer teaching if not done correctly. To avoid this, she recommends only serving with programs that supplement the work of actual trained teachers rather than displacing teachers to place a foreign volunteer (because there is more to it than having your student repeat words in English).
For those that want to explore how, where, and what’s needed to teach abroad, Teaching Traveling is a good site. With insights and advice, you will be better able to navigate your time abroad.
2 Rebuilding Takes Time And Dedication
According to the Marriott hotel chain’s travel magazine, roughly two billion dollars are spent each year on travel vacations. For that, voluntourism ranks as one of the fastest growing trends in travel. But what are the most popular destinations and projects? The answer might surprise you.
Based on a review by Marriott of its customers, most traveling volunteers were choosing renovation and reconstruction projects in Costa Rica. With pristine waters, warm temperatures, and friendly people, this all makes perfect sense. After a long day of hammering and painting, volunteers can unwind and enjoy everything Costa Rica has to offer.
1 As Easy As ABC, 123
Designed to expose volunteers to varying perspectives and pervasive social issues in South Asia, Volunteering Journeys wants their volunteers to deepen their own connections and be challenged every step of the way. Volunteers should leave having learned skills that they can carry forward and, preferably, with a desire to come back and serve again.
Projects range from teaching to women’s empowerment to medical assisting. With short or long term trips for individuals, groups, and families, there is something for everyone. There’s even a personalized itinerary (with breaks for ample exploring) to help you make the most out of your time and thus make you more willing to give back. A simple recipe for success.