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A volunteer vacation? Like taking a vacation to work? The family might be skeptical at first. However, volunteer vacations, often termed “voluntourism,” provide an affordable (some include program fees) and meaningful way for families or global volunteers to acquire some pretty amazing travel experiences. The great thing about the best volunteer vacations? The awesome feeling that comes after making a positive impact. Taking volunteer holidays as a family is always a great idea. It provides a platform for family bonding, cultural immersion, and education. Most importantly, contributing positively to conservation and community projects fosters a shared sense of responsibility and empathy.
Here are five of our favorite voluntourism opportunities for families…
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Wildlife Conservation in Southern Africa
The animal lover in the family will be all over this one. Wildlife conservation efforts in countries like Kenya, South Africa, or Namibia are at the top of our favorite family volunteer vacations for a reason. The volunteer experience may include activities like tracking and monitoring animals, assisting with anti-poaching efforts, or habitat restoration.
Out of the well-known African non-profit organizations, Conservation Travel Africa offers a variety of volunteer experiences in Southern Africa. Some of the volunteer programs include endangered wildlife conservation, anti-poaching training, marine conservation, and community outreach projects. This allows the family to work with local people and local communities. The projects are designed for solo travelers, families, college students, and mature volunteers.
The family volunteer work includes rhino, primate, and elephant conservation service trips as well as community outreach and conservation. The trips can last for just a week or as many as 12 weeks. The different projects don’t require any special skill set, just a desire to be there and a willingness to jump in. Accommodations vary but all of them put visitors close to the work in either a base camp or a volunteer house.
Teaching English in Asia
Countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia offer opportunities to teach English to children and adults from different cultures. On a personal note, I have taught English for 20 years, and I have found working with English Language Learners to be the most rewarding experience. In teaching our language, we also learn about our student’s language. It is in this interaction that our capacity to empathize grows.
While this is a popular volunteer activity for young adults, especially those who are interested in teaching and traveling, some programs also offer families this kind of work. Open Mind is one organization that allows families to travel and teach together. The schools in need of volunteers are located in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Nepal. The minimum length of a stay is 2 weeks, but most volunteers stay for 2-3 months. This experience can be very rewarding as a volunteer traveler will help small groups of students improve their language skills and, thus, their futures.
Every trip begins with three and a half days of training at Open Mind’s headquarters in Nong Khai. During the training, volunteers spend much time learning about the culture, language, important values, and “do’s and don’ts.” Families will stay within the community where they teach, and they should be prepared for simple living conditions. The accommodations will mirror how a local family might live.
Not ready to dive into travel? They offer an option for volunteers to teach English online, too. This might be just the confidence boost potential voluntourists need.
Marine Conservation in Belize
Participate in coral reef restoration, sea turtle conservation, and other marine projects. These aquatic-focused programs often involve scuba diving and data collection on marine life.
International Volunteer HQ offers family volunteer trips around the world, but Belize’s project is made for aquaphiles. Volunteers stay and work on a private island 16 miles off Placencia in Southern Belize. Accommodations are simple but comfortable, with rooms in the volunteer house or nearby cabanas. Every room has an ocean view. An onsite chef serves three delicious meals per day which are included in the cost. Guests must be at least 12 years old with a guardian. Trips last from one week to six weeks. Families will help local scientists with a range of scuba diving tasks and should expect to dive at least twice a day. During free time, bask in the warmth of knowing that a family of sea turtles has a nicer home because of this work, which honestly doesn’t even feel like work.
Archaeological Dig in the UK
Join an archaeological dig. Volunteers can help with excavation, cataloging artifacts, and site preservation. When I was in my early 20s I had the opportunity to spend an afternoon on a dig in Italy. It was everything that my Indiana Jones-loving heart imagined it would be. There is something about uncovering our history under dirt that truly puts life in perspective.
Vindolanda was a Roman auxiliary fort just south of Hadrian’s Wall in northern England. The Vindolanda Trust presents guests with the opportunity to work with this local organization in the excavation of the fort. This work is intended for families with older children; 16 is the minimum age of volunteers, and they need a guardian. It is important to note that the experience books up quickly. Be sure to check their website often so as not to miss each year’s sign-up. Volunteers can stay onsite at the Hedley Centre which includes five comfortable bedrooms and a large kitchen and dining space. Do note that there are stay-and-excavate packages that include a 12-night stay.
Environmental Conservation in North America
Work in national parks or conservation areas in the United States or Canada, helping with trail maintenance, visitor education, and wildlife monitoring, among other volunteer projects.
My family regularly volunteers together to maintain a local hiking and biking trail. We drag out our gardening equipment and make sure that our neighbors get to enjoy a clear path. My boys always come back covered in dirt and debris, starving (but when aren’t they?), and wearing smiles that could light up the world. Case in point, travelers don’t need to look far for these kinds of character-building experiences.
Want to take a hike? Or better yet, help maintain or create hiking trails? Then check out The American Hiking Society. They offer volunteer vacations from The Appalachians to The Rockies and everywhere in between. Meals and lodging (which might be a tent) are included. Guests need to be at least 18 years old and in good shape.
Similarly, The Nature Conservancy in the US is an exceptional program that offers many different volunteer opportunities for families across the entire country. An example of an ongoing project is New Hampshire’s Oyster Conservationist Volunteer; volunteers get to help the condition of Great Bay by raising baby oysters. Another option to get involved, much closer to home, is the Santa Clara River Project. Volunteers must be 18, and they can help preserve the beauty of the river by picking up trash, organizing and leading hikes, and greeting visitors. While The Nature Conservancy offers incredible opportunities for families to come together in the name of environmental conservation, they are not a voluntourism company. Volunteers will need to visit their Opportunity Page, and then seek accommodations on their own. With a bit of work, it might be possible to find a host family near a project who is willing to swap houses.
The great thing about the best volunteer vacations? The awesome feeling that comes after making a positive impact. Taking volunteer holidays as a family is always a great idea.
One more voluntourism organization to check out is Discover Corps. On their website, families can find an assortment of global volunteer holidays. Costa Rica? Take a trip to care for sea turtles. Latin America or South America? Of course, head to Peru and work with children in the Andes.
Moreover, volunteering as a family in different parts of the world instills a sense of global citizenship and empathy. Participating in community service offers our children the chance to witness the tangible impact of their efforts. It may foster a lifelong commitment to altruism and social responsibility.
Family volunteer trips are more than just vacations. They nurture a family’s growth together while contributing positively to communities around the world.
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