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Taking a Volunteer Vacation
For your voluntourism and charity work abroad

Volunteer vacations really came into their own after the Asian tsunami in 2004, when thousands of women, on their own or with their families, tried to help, wondering what they could do to rebuild the devastated beaches of Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and Indonesia. That yearning to try some charity work abroad was strengthened by Hurricane Katrina and more recently the Japanese earthquake in March 2011.

Voluntourists saw planks, hammer nails, dig foundations and sand walls, trying to help rebuild homes for families who have lost so much.

Voluntourism, as it's often also called, is all about taking a vacation, but with a purpose. There's nothing wrong with sea, sun, sport, spa - but something more meaningful can be had too.

You might volunteer for many reasons - to share some of your own good fortune with others less fortunate, or out of faith, or to practice a language, hone a specific skill or learn about a new culture.

Thousands of women are using their vacations to help others. They're volunteering as teachers, wildlife conservationists, well builders or orphanage supervisors. And their numbers continue to grow.

Everyone is doing it - students, seniors, moms and sisters - volunteer vacations are all the rage. However long your vacation, whether a week or several, you can spend part or all of it as a volunteer. It'll be an unusual vacation, and you'll be making a difference.

Paying to volunteer abroad

That's right - you can pay to be a volunteer abroad. Don't run - it's not as crazy as it sounds.

The fact that you're volunteering means that an organization matched you with a project - someone's salary had to be paid to do that. You probably found the organization through a website, for which someone is paying upkeep and server fees. You'll get medical insurance on most assignments. And often local transport. These are services for which you have to pay.

And you'll need to be fed and lodged in your host community. Why should your local hosts be out of pocket because you're volunteering to help them? Even one extra mouth to feed in a poverty-stricken area could make a major difference to a rural family. They may be appreciative of your help, but they can't afford your voluntourism.

Voluntourism versus vacation

The difference between a volunteer vacation and a regular vacation are both big and small.

On the small side, both types of vacation include visits to important sites in the area, stays in hotels, and similar costs.

On the big side, volunteer vacations involve spending time helping others.

There are literally hundreds of volunteer vacation packages, which could include activities like these:

  • Sprucing up an orphanage in Vietnam
  • Counting dolphins in Belize
  • Studying humpback whales in Costa Rica
  • Teaching at a school for displaced tsunami survivors
  • Building latrines in Malawi

And plenty of other projects.

How does voluntourism work?

A volunteer vacation can last anywhere from a few days to a month or two, but typically falls somewhere in-between - just like a regular vacation.

Organizations offer so much choice you could literally go anywhere - around the world or around the corner.

The volunteer content of the trip can also vary. In some cases, no more than half a day might be spent at an orphanage out of a week's holiday. At the other end of the scale, an entire holiday might be spent volunteering, with a few tourist escapades in the evening or on the weekend. The choice is yours.

And the days can be long - and hard. Just because you're paying doesn't mean you'll be let off the hook easily. On the contrary, you may be waking up and going to work earlier on your vacation than you do at home! But you'll be making someone's life better because of it.

What to look for in a volunteer vacation

Not all volunteer vacations are the same, so you need to choose. What should you be looking for before making a commitment?

The same thing you look for in a regular vacation - location, price, value for money, convenience of course... but also more:

  • Check the organization's track record - how long it's been around, how many volunteers it has recruited, how many projects it has successfully concluded
  • Whether it is a for-profit or non-profit organization
  • The percentage of money it keeps for itself (administration, overheads, profits) and the amount it reinvests in the project
  • Are the projects sustainable? What happens to them after you leave?
  • Its reputation: ask to be put in touch with returning volunteers and talk to them. I would stay away from any organization not willing to provide solid references.

There can be a down side

Not everyone thinks voluntourism is helpful - it does have plenty of critics.

Some people say a volunteer vacation mostly benefits the volunteer, not the project.

The thousands of dollars paid by an American or European to paint a few rooms in an African orphanage might have paid for teachers, school supplies and health care.

On the other hand, people who opt for a volunteer vacation often return changed, with new insights about themselves and the world around them - and often, a commitment to continue helping others when they return, either at home or in poorer countries.

So - what to do? How to make sure you don't take more than you give, and that your trip provides a true benefit rather than just a feel-good vacation?

Here are a few suggestions to make that happen:

  • Learn a bit of the language before you go - even a few words will help you integrate.
  • Read up about the country. It will show that you actually care - and that you respect your hosts. It will also give you a better understanding of your destination.
  • Find out about the country's problems. Try and understand the reason behind the poverty or ill-health you're working to fight.
  • Don't just stick with your group - mingle with local people.
  • Better yet, if the option exists, stay with a local family.
  • See if you have an extra skill you can share - a bit of English conversation perhaps.
  • Look at your trip as the beginning of a long-term relationship with the people you are helping. Don't forget them when you get home. Contact a politician - tell them where you've been, what you've seen, and what you expect them to do about it. Or join an organization that fights for the things you believe in.

Volunteer vacations at home

Not every volunteer vacation means going abroad. You can spend your holiday volunteering almost in your backyard.

Plenty of local charities provide volunteer opportunities for girls and women who want to spend a week or more doing things for others. Here are just a few examples of what you can do at home as a volunteer:

  • Visiting old people in a hospital
  • Clean-up duty at a local lakeshore
  • Volunteering at a local animal shelter
  • Helping clean a hostel for the elderly
  • Repairing and maintaining hiking trails
  • Helping out at a battered women's shelter
  • Working with AIDS patients

Voluntourism resources

The Ethical Volunteer has a good checklist to help you choose the right voluntourism organization.

Here are some voluntourism organizations that have met with favorable reviews:

Global Volunteers
Habitat for Humanity
Sustainable Harvest International
Biosphere Expeditions
Cross-Cultural Solutions
Earthwatch Institute
Grassroots Volunteering

And for those who want to stay closer to home, there's of course the Red Cross, in the US and in the UK.

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