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Tips on Planning a Family Volunteer Vacation


Photo: mike baird

Proper planning for your family volunteer vacation can lead to a very rewarding experience. Here are some helpful tips to make your family volunteer trip an experience of a lifetime.

Do your research! Begin researching and planning your trip about three months before you leave. Figure out where you want to travel, types of volunteer service, types of organization you want to go through, length of vacation and how much time devoted to volunteering, etc. Also, you want to find out about health and trip insurance, language/culture concerns, and if traveling to a developing country, whether any vaccinations are needed. See our post on Keys to a Successful Volunteer Vacation for some tips on making your volunteer travel a success.

Find a volunteer opportunity that is within your budget. With the troubling economy, people may not have as much disposable income to travel. There are volunteer vacations for all budget groups. Choose a trip that is meaningful to you within your budget. Consider a domestic trip versus an international trip as domestic flights can be cheaper. Some great examples of low cost trips can be found in our Budget Volunteer Vacations series.

Decide on what kind of trip you want to take. Encourage all family members to get involved in selecting the volunteer vacation. The more engaged everyone is in the selection process, the more committed all of you will be. Consider your children’s ages. Be certain that the volunteer vacation you choose is appropriate for your child’s maturity level. Think about your family’s talents, personalities, interests and the issues that are important. Make sure that whatever you decide to do will be meaningful to all involved. Do not just choose a trip just to say you did it. It will be that much more rewarding if you find the cause important. Consider what you’d like to learn from the experience. Some trips that are great for families are volunteering in a national park, building houses through an organization like Habitat for Humanity, and helping with conservation efforts around the world.

Make sure that all family members know what volunteer travel entails. Your children may not completely understand what they will be doing, so it is important to talk to them especially if they are very sensitive toward issues of poverty. Cultural differences also require preparations – for the sake of your own family, as well as the people you’ll be working with and helping. You also don’t want you children to be overly alarmed by the new culture. Read with the kids stories about the place you’ll be visiting. Look at maps with them. If you’re going to a place where a foreign language is spoken, teach them how to say things like “hello,” “thank you,” and “please” in that language. Before beginning the volunteer vacation, explain to your children what may happen, how they’re expected to behave and why the service is important. Once you get started, be patient with their efforts and let them know how they’re making a difference.

Deciding whether to book with an agency/tour organization or book your own trip. Using an agency is probably the best, especially if this is your first family volunteer vacation, since all the details are taken care of. Transportation and accommodations are usually provided, making traveling overseas easy. It’ll likely be more expensive. There are many agencies/tour operators offering volunteer vacations, but some, such as Global Citizen Network and Global Aware, are more family friendly and have packages structured to integrate kids. Hotels also offer voluntourism programs and many families opt for this venue because it takes the least amount of planning and the program tend to be less intense. Booking your own trip will likely cost you less but involve more time and research. But it can be done and some families prefer the flexibility of DIY trips. See our post on Guide to DIY Voluntourism.

Check up on the agency/tour organization. The Internal Revenue Service website says that those non-profits registered with them will have the code 501(c)(3), symbolizing that they are registered as a non-profit organization. Make sure you are comfortable with your agency/tour organization. Ask as many questions as needed to ensure reliability:

*What is the overall goal of your organization?
*What kinds of resources are available to volunteers and workers in your organization?
*How flexible is the program? Will I just fit in with a predefined system or work?
*Does your agency have a minimum age requirement?
*What is the work schedule like?
*How safe is the communities your organization works in?
*Is there a program fee and what does it cover?

Accommodations. When booking a trip through a popular volunteer organization, most likely accommodations will be arranged. However, there is the possibility that you will have to plan this part on your own. You can stay in hotels or with local host families, ask volunteer organization for recommendations or referrals.

Have a plan. Though you may have an idea of what your day to day activities are, have a plan set out for the duration of your trip. Are there any other special things you want to do with your family while on the trip? Though the main purpose of the trip could be volunteer, you will usually have free time to sightsee. Know in advance how you want to spend your time.

Take into consideration that your physical strength is a lot different than that of your children. Make sure the work will not be too much for them to handle. Younger children who may thrive on working with animals are going to have difficultly rebuilding a home.

Some trip ideas:
Washington Trails Association (WTA) offers a program in early August for families who want to experience a week on the trail. The family program is designed for families with children ages 10-14 who are interested in the outdoors and seeking a fun and memorable experience. For $150 ($125 for WTA member) they will provide you with a week of fun, food and some trail work. You will be camping.

Catalina Island Conservancy’s new Catalina Explorer program is a family-friendly option that allows children over the age of 12 to participate, as long as a parent accompanies them. Project difficulty is light to moderate, and may include beach clean-up, watering and trail maintenance. A sample itinerary would include a half-day Jeep Eco-tour, one full day of service, a two-hour walking tour of Avalon, a half-day of service, a free day and a half-day beach clean-up
. This package also includes two (2) tickets to the Wrigley Memorial Botanical Garden and two (2) tickets to the Catalina Island Museum. Cost is $498/couple, $249/individual, but lodging is booked separately.

Habitat for Humanity International’s “Global Village” trips welcome families on all projects, from Tajikistan to South Dakota. Land costs for a 5- to 21-day trip average $100 a day.

Earthwatch has family teams programs that allow children aged over ten (or in some cases over 14) to join an Earthwatch expedition. Earthwatch believes that getting kids involved in science expeditions at an early age helps develop critical thinking skills and an appreciation for the natural world. A seven-day Puerto Rico rainforest frog and lizard research trip located at Las Casas de la Selva, about an hour from San Juan. This family program will take place in December 2009 and January 2010.

Global Citizens’ Network (GCN) has identified specific destinations that, while scenic and culturally rich, also have community needs that can be filled with the assistance of families volunteering together. GCN has projects in Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, Thailand, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Ecuador, and North America (Rock Point, AZ, La Push, WA, White Earth Reservation, MN, Lucky Forks, KT, and Eden Valley Reserve in Canada). Prices vary by destination and duration. A ten-day project working with the indigenous Maya population in Cantel, Guatemala from June 26 to July 5, 2009 is priced at $1,575 for adults 16 and over and $1,113 for children under 16.

Wildland Adventures’ trips focus on culturally and environmentally responsible travel. Children walk with elephants in Botswana or have dinner in the home of a Turkish family.

Most importantly – have fun!

Contribution to post from Nicole Rutledge


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