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International Volunteering with Your Family

Inter-Generational and Cross Cultural Considerations

International family volunteering, mother with her son at ARCAS.
ARCAS, Peten, Guatemala by Marina Kuperman Villatoro.

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. 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.

Some of the organizations for families include Global Volunteers, Lead Adventures, GO ECO, and, for those on a very tight budget, Volunteers for Peace.

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 to build houses or tutoring in Costa Rica, costs $2,495 per person for a week plus airfare. An additional week only adds a few hundred dollars to the cost. There are discounts for families, students, and repeat volunteers.

Lead Adventures
Lead Adventures offers volunteer and other intergenerational programs for families in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador. You can help in the conservation of the Galapagos Islands with your family. The operators are locals and you can customize the dates and duration of your program. There is a chance for families to bond between past and new generations and an authentic Galapagos Experience, which is something most people will likely never experience in their lifetime. You can do something unique and make a difference volunteering as a family at the same time. Programs are also available in the Andes and the Amazon. Check the website for current costs.

The organization, while it does not specialize in family volunteering, does offers 11 programs currently that are family-friendly around the world, with projects including working with monkeys in Africa to sea turtle conservation in Greece to agricultural work in Israel. Check the website for current prices for each individual program.

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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Family Volunteer Programs
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