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Volunteer Vacations: How to Choose an Ethical Program

A herd of wild elephants in Africa.

In October of 2004, Alice Sears, then 51, and her sixteen-year-old son Tyler, flew to Delhi, India to join their fellow adventurers of all ages for a 15-day horseback riding journey through Rajasthan province in northwest India. Organized by Relief Riders International, the trip combined an exotic adventure with hands-on altruism. Along the route, the caravan stopped at small villages and schools where they set up medical clinics and pediatric camps. Sears and her son helped register and count out medicine and supplies. At night, the travelers stayed in centuries-old Rajput forts or slept in luxurious tents draped in gold and crimson Indian fabrics and decorated with pillows and handmade rugs. Although neither Sears nor her son spoke the local language, they had no trouble communicating with the locals. “You can shake someone’s hand, have an exchange of the heart and show that you care,” says Sears, who’s now on sabbatical from her job as a Milwaukee county district attorney. Sears is no stranger to volunteering or far-flung locales: she took her entire family, including her five children, to Papua, New Guinea and climbed a mountain in Nepal. But the trip to Rajasthan, she says, was “a peak experience.”

Pam Norman, 42, her husband Brian, 46, daughter, Alexandra, 15, and son, Andrew, 10, spent spring break 2005 in a 4-star beachfront hotel in Belize. In the afternoons, the family enjoyed swimming, sunning and all the benefits of a beach vacation. In the mornings they volunteered at a local school for children in need. “We worked on landscaping projects, distributed school supplies, and participated in peaceful conflict resolution sessions,” says Pam Norman.

Alexandra, Andrew, and the local children quickly found shared interests. “The students joined us on the beach for casual conversation throughout the week and became my children’s friends,” says Norman, Executive Director of Ambassadors for Children, the nonprofit that organized the trip. “Our vacation was filled with life-changing experiences and memories that our family will always carry with us,” adds Norman.

For many of us, volunteering abroad evokes images of hearty young people and dedicated retirees living in makeshift huts in remote or rustic corners of the world. While these traditional volunteer vacations still attract thousands of dedicated people, this total immersion model is no longer the sole option for people intent on combining adventure and altruism. Known as “Voluntourism,” this new version of “traveling for good” or “traveling to make a difference” is “hands-on volunteer service balanced by sightseeing and experiencing the culture of a destination,” says Norman. And it is a growing trend. According to the Travel Industry Associations of America (TIA), more than 55 million Americans have taken some form of volunteer vacation and nearly twice as many are considering doing the same.

Success With Significance

What’s motivating this new type of traveler? “I believe we all have a fundamental desire to contribute to making the world a better place,” says Nancy Rivard, founder of Airline Ambassadors International, a nonprofit humanitarian relief organization composed of airline employees and “civilian” volunteers who distribute medical and other aid to people in need all over the globe. “Personal fulfillment is a powerful impetus,” says Rivard. This combination of volunteerism and vacation, notes Sears, creates vivid, enduring, and transforming travel experiences. “I think my son and I personally got more from [helping] the villagers than we gave,” she says. Norman echoes this sentiment: “My children learned that we can make a difference in a fun way as we travel. It’s a vacation tradition we plan to continue.”

Voluntouring 101

Voluntourism options are limited only by your preference, time, and budget. You can spend leisure time in Buenos Aires or Bangkok, Tijuana or Tahiti, and still volunteer in homes for the disabled, schools, soup kitchens, hospitals and clinics, or work on an archaeological dig, count turtle eggs, or track aquatic trails of a school of dolphins. You can build houses, clean up parks, or paint a schoolhouse. And you can experience, enjoy, and contribute while staying in your preferred accommodations, from a hotel, resort, or vacation rental to a homestay or more rustic lodging. Trips last for a day, a weekend, a fortnight, or longer; prices range widely from $500 to $5,000 per person.

Do Your Homework

Regardless of the destination or trip you choose, do your homework. Research the tour operator or organization and ask to speak to past participants. David Clemmons, founder of, advises getting answers to these core questions before you sign up:

  1. What is the level of interaction with local residents?

  2. How much guidance from tour/organization staff will I receive?

  3. What type of physical labor is involved; e.g., will I be mixing cement or lifting heavy bags?

  4. What contingency plans are in place in case I need to take a break from volunteering? If I need to leave the trip, what’s the exit strategy?

  5. What activities and tours are included in the price?

  6. How much downtime is built into the trip?

  7. What percentage is tax deductible?

Volunteer Vacation Programs

Both for-profit companies and not-for-profit organizations offer vacations with a service angle. Here are a few worth investigating:

Airline Ambassadors International: Airline Ambassadors’ “Traveling to Make a Difference” humanitarian aid missions provide substantive aid to children in need. Volunteers hand deliver medical or school supplies, wheelchairs, shoes, clothing, food, and humanitarian assistance to children in schools, clinics, and community care centers around the globe on an on-going basis. AAI organizes three to 10 missions per month to South America, Asia, and Africa that are open to non-airline employee members. Individual trip costs vary but include airfare, accommodations, sightseeing, ground transportation, and donations to the projects.

Relief Riders International: Barely two years old, this for-profit adventure travel company’s 15-day cultural journey coupled with a humanitarian mission has already won kudos from travel critics and participants. Presently, Relief Riders operates in Rajasthan, India. Groups are limited to 15 riders — age is no barrier, the oldest participant to date was 69. Riders deliver relief supplies, books, educational information, medicine, and goats to villagers, and they accompany a medical team that sets up camps along the journey. Those not accustomed to the saddle can travel by jeep and camel cart. Accommodations are in upscale hotels, historic forts, and luxury tents.

Other Resources

Habitat for Humanity International: Global Village Program: Habitat volunteers travel to well over 50 countries around the globe helping to bridge cultural differences by pitching in to build homes for deserving people. Since 1976, the organization has built or repaired over 600,000 houses, serving more than 3 million people worldwide. Domestic builds last one to two weeks; overseas builds last three to four weeks and usually include a post-build vacation in-country.

UN Online Volunteering: This United Nations affiliated program gives would-be volunteers from all over the world the chance to help organizations serving communities in developing countries and can be requested via their site — without leaving their home. These online volunteers translate documents, write articles, research data, build websites, mentor young people, design logos, and engage in many other projects to benefit organizations serving people in the developing world.

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