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Taking the Kids on a Volunteer Vacation

Volunteer vacations take you and your family out of your comfort zone.

By GreatSchools Staff

Looking for an out-of-the-ordinary vacation that will provide your kids with fun, learning and a chance to help others? Many organizations specialize in family travel combined with volunteer opportunities, or what's been dubbed "voluntourism." Most ask that kids be at least 8 years of age (but exceptions are granted) and for most, no special skills are required. These trips provide an opportunity for learning about another culture or the environment, not to mention family bonding over hard work.

These trips are not for the faint of heart. "Flexibility, patience, a spirit of adventure, and a sense of humor go a long way," according to the Global Volunteers Web site. Accommodations may be spare, but the experiences can be life-changing!

Even though these are volunteer trips, they're not free. You'll pay a fee that generally includes your lodging, food and transportation from the meeting place to the location where you will be volunteering. Here's a sampling of family volunteer vacation opportunities.

Global Citizens Network sponsors trips to New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, Mexico, Nepal, Guatemala, Kenya and Tanzania. Volunteer projects are varied and might include building a health clinic, renovating a youth center, planting trees, teaching in a primary school and installing playground equipment. A big part of these trips is meeting, working and living with people from other cultures.

Accommodations are often family homestays or lodging at local community centers. Some places have indoor plumbing and electricity while others may not. You might sleep on a bed, hammock or on the floor.

Families are assigned to teams, which generally consist of six to 10 volunteers plus a trained team leader. In addition to families, you might find students, retirees, nurses, social workers and computer programmers mixed into one group.

Barbara Everhart, a Minneapolis mom and her 6-year-old daughter, Kailey, traveled to Xiloxochico, Mexico, to build a casita, or small house, in 2006. With their group, they stayed in a co-op hotel in the nearby town of Cuetzaltan, run by native women of the Nahua tribe.

"It became one of my favorite places in the world," says Everhart. "It was great to see the women running the hotel and benefiting from it." The tribeswomen did everything from making the soap to cleaning the rooms. Everhardt was impressed by Global Citizens Network, too, and the way they work within a community to form a cooperative partnership.

Everhart and her daughter had no prior building skills, but that wasn't important. They were able to help chop and carry bamboo from the forest, and sift sand to make into cement. Kailey also got to play with the native children, see their school and teach them a few words of English.

"For children the benefit of a trip like this is they learn that the world is a lot bigger than their neighborhood," Everhart says. "They get see another culture, another place and another world. My daughter (now 8) still talks about it and she was only 6 at the time. For families, the trip builds cohesiveness; it's an experience you can relate to and remember later on for making comparisons in your own community. It gets you out of your comfort zone."

"Last summer I decided to travel with Global Citizens with my 6-year-old daughter Ananda to Mexico for three reasons," says Linda Stuart, a Minnesota mom and Global Citizens executive director "to share with her my belief that giving isn't a privilege but rather a way of life; to integrate her into my work of responsible exchanges and alternative tourism; and to show her in person that 90% of the world does not live as we do and their lives are so rich!

"Ananda in turn taught me to have unconditional compassion for others. Upon return, we shared our stories with anyone and everyone who would listen. Our awareness for the world beyond our world was enhanced by that one-week experience together. We had quality time to get to know each other. An overwhelming sense of belonging came over me as I watched Ananda play hide-and-seek with the Nahua children of Xiloxochico. It truly was a great reminder of the 'oneness'and humanity that binds us all."

You can learn more at their Web site or by calling 800-644-9292.

Habitat for Humanity hosts volunteer opportunities building houses in communities-in-need close to home and across the globe, as part of their Global Village program. Children are welcome, so long as they are accompanied by a parent. No specialized skills are required. Accommodations range from sleeping on air mattresses in a church in Anchorage, Alaska, to staying in modest, clean hotels within walking distance of shopping, restaurants and an Internet cafe in Casablanca, Chile. On Habitat's week-long trips, you'll work side by side with volunteer team members, your knowledgeable team leader and members of the local community. The itineraries vary, but most include time for exploring the area and its attractions.

In 1998 Boston-based single mom Cynthia Perkins traveled to Botswana with her 15-year-old-son Roc and a team of 14 Habitat for Humanity volunteers of various ages to build a house with community members in the village of Kasane. There were no other teens traveling with their parents on this trip, but Roc did make friends with a 19- and a 20-year-old team member, and had the added bonus of forming a friendship with the 15-year-old son of the family whose house they were building.

"I took this trip with my son because I thought it would be the last time he might want to do something with his mom," says Perkins with a laugh.

Habitat for Humanity requires a minimum $350 donation for each participant, plus the cost of room, board and airfare. The total for Perkins came to about $3,000 per person. Because the trip was costly, she and her son composed a fundraising letter that they sent to friends, relatives and community members asking for donations to support their service. "From the moment we started getting $100 checks from friends and others, Roc began to realize that this wasn't going to be an ordinary trip, that other people thought this was a significant adventure and service opportunity."

Perkins and her son spent two weeks with their team and residents of Kasane helping to build a two-room house with a concrete foundation in a small village. Before the arrival of Habitat for Humanity, most people in the village lived in huts made of elephant dung, twigs and mud. These makeshift homes would be full of bugs in the summer and disintegrate in the rainy season.

As the team and community members worked on the new house, elephants, monkeys and wart hogs would pass by. "The team all worked very hard," says Cynthia." It was inspiring to work alongside the village members. They challenged us to not give up because they had so much energy."

Upon their return, her son made a video with footage he had gathered on his trip, and they jointly created a newsletter to share with all the friends and family who had contributed.

Learn more about Habitat for Humanity trips at their Web site or call 800-HABITAT.

Global Volunteers organizes volunteer "service program" trips all over the world. Founded in 1984, this is the original "adventure in service" organization, according to its Web site, and was around before the term "volunteer vacation" existed. The group sponsors trips hosted by 100 local communities in 19 countries. Standard trips are one, two or three weeks, depending on the needs of the host community. Global Volunteers describes the purpose of its trips as a way to "wage peace personally and help eradicate racism; learn first-hand about poverty and homelessness; contribute to the successes of local development work." Projects range from teaching English to planting trees to building community centers. Fees for the trip range from $795 to $2,195.

For more information, see the Global Volunteers Web site and check here for specific information about family volunteering, or call 1-800-487-1074.

If exploring the great outdoors in the United States or close by is your bent, the American Hiking Society offers "trail stewardship projects." Founded in 1976, this nonprofit organization says it is dedicated to "establishing, protecting and maintaining the nation's footpaths." Its volunteer vacations are available in 75 locations in 25 states across the United States and the Virgin Islands.

Each crew consists of six to 15 volunteers plus a crew leader, who work on building and maintaining hiking trails on public lands. Hiking and backpacking are part of the week-long trips, several of which are designated as "family friendly." The trips are rated from easy to strenuous. The group says participants need to be in good physical condition but no prior experience is required. Accommodations range from campsites to cabins. You bring your own tent, sleeping bag and eating utensils. "Bring only your camping gear and a willingness to get dirty," the society advises in its brochure. On most trips, airport pickup is also provided. The one-week trips cost $245 for members and $275 for non-members.


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