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International Volunteering with Your Family

Inter-Generational and Cross Cultural Considerations

Imagine volunteering at a summer camp for kids with disabilities in Eastern Europe—and bringing your own children along. Or think about taking your grandchildren with you to a volunteer program in Belize, learning about sustainable chocolate production while you help local Mayan farmers.

It used to be almost impossible for parents of young children to volunteer internationally. In fact, the Peace Corps and many other programs still will not accept volunteers with young kids.

But quite a few Volunteer Sending Organizations (VSOs) have realized the potential benefits of intergenerational family volunteering: bringing families together, helping young people understand the broader world, and supporting local efforts at community development.

Of course, the biggest concern when volunteering with kids is health and safety. Even common, water borne illness can be dangerous for a very young child. Malaria can be life threatening. And children don’t always have the maturity to deal with the intercultural issues they might face overseas. For these reasons, I recommend some special considerations when volunteering with your kids or grandchildren:

  1. Be much more cautious in your choice of country than you would be if traveling by yourself. For most families, I’d recommend stable countries such as Costa Rica, Belize, or European nations. There will still be plenty of health, safety, language and cultural concerns, but you (probably) won’t have the additional complications of political unrest. Avoid countries with high levels of malaria or other diseases that can be particularly harmful to kids, unless you have doctor’s approval and the advice of an excellent traveler’s clinic. (In some countries malaria is endemic on one region and almost absent in another.) The alternative is to go to countries that you know well. For example, my husband lived in Vietnam for six years and speaks the language, so it would be a great place for our family to volunteer.
  2. Chose a VSO that specializes in family programs. These days, many organizations offer to organize programs for a family. But only a few truly specialize in the complicated issues that arise in intergenerational volunteering. My top three VSOs for families are listed below. Even if you chose one of these organizations, ask to speak to a family that has volunteered on the specific program you are considering. That way you can learn about their experiences and make sure the program is a match for you before you sign up.
  3. Take extra time to orient the children who will travel with you. The more they know before they go, the more they will get out of the experience. Buy age appropriate books months before departure. Discuss some of the situations you might encounter overseas. Guide them in their own research. Connect them, via the VSO, with children of other families who have volunteered in the country you will visit.
  4. Consider the maturity of your child. Most VSOs do not accept children under the age of ten, and for good reason. Younger children might end up creating distractions for other volunteers. They may get bored by certain types of volunteering. They may engage in behaviors that endanger them. But if you check out the organizations below, you’ll find that some do have programs designed for younger kids.
  5. If you have special issues, such as a same sex partner or a child with a disability, let the VSO know in advance. Most VSOs can accommodate a family’s special needed if informed in advance.

The three organizations I recommend for families are Global Volunteers, Road Scholars, and, for those on a very tight budget, Volunteers for Peace.

Road Scholars
The Road Scholar programs, formerly known as Elderhostel, provide meaningful opportunities for families, mostly grandparents volunteering with grandchildren. Road Scholars offers dozens of intergenerational travel options and many of them include service components. The focus is on study and learning, so expect to volunteer with intellectually curious people of different ages. Road Scholars is especially adept at dealing with the issues and concerns of older family members. For my money, I’d join the “Chocolate and the Maya: A Service Adventure in Belize.” It’s $1,171 for each person at the tiime of this writing, plus airfare to Belize, for an 8-day program. This Belize program is for adults with a child age 10-13; see the website for options for other ages.

Global Volunteers
Global Volunteers has a plethora of programs for families. GV also has a "Safety Trumps Everything" policy that I think is especially appropriate when young people are involved. The organization is one of the largest and most respected VSOs in the United States. Global Volunteers offers family programs all around the world including China, Vietnam, Poland, Mexico, Peru and Tanzania. Minimum ages range from 5 to 18, depending on the country. A typical project, volunteering in construction or tutoring in Costa Rica, costs $2,395 per person for a week plus airfare. An additional week only adds $200 to the cost. There are discounts for families, students, and repeat volunteers.

International Workcamps/Volunteers for Peace
Workcamps are popular in Europe and they are a great option for families on a tight budget. I’d suggest Volunteers for Peace (part of the International work camp network) for a family that likes camping and working with people of other cultures. Most two week programs cost $500 for the whole family to volunteer, plus airfare. The cost is low because the services provided are simpler than the programs mentioned above. For example, you might sleep in a same sex dorm room with several other people instead of having a private hotel room. Volunteers help prepare the food for meals each day. You won’t get extensive orientation or fancy side trips. You will gain a sense of community with your fellow volunteers. Assignments might include renovation of community buildings; trail building and tree planting; or social projects working with the elderly, the disabled, or children. Some projects accept children as young as 3. Family work camp projects are announced each year in March and include volunteer programs in Estonia, Indonesia, Norway, Georgia, and Sweden.

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