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Essential Tips for Family-Friendly Volunteer Tourism

Updated: Oct 27, 2019

How to plan a volunteer-based vacation that promotes family bonding + personal transformation.

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Do you ever feel like your family vacations lack substance? Like the anticipation is better than the actual experience? So have we. And while there’s ways to infuse more joy and meaning into any vacation, we’ve found that one of the surest routes to a trip brimming with purpose, family bonding and personal transformation is volunteer tourism.

Volunteering while traveling not only places you with a group of adventurous, and probably like-minded individuals, but allows you to visit exotic destinations for more affordable rates than you could likely find on your own, and above all, allows you and your family to become more impactful global citizens. But before you sign the family up for one of the most meaningful trips you’ll ever take, there are key tips to keep in mind as you plan.

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Have a family meeting about why you want to engage in volunteer travel.

Mother and baby elephant benefiting from volunteer tourism

Initially, it may be tricky to get your family interested in volunteer travel, but if you strategically present the idea they’ll hopefully hop on your do-gooder wagon. Here are ideas to get you started:

· Offer photos and stories painting the scene of the people, animals or environment you’ll be supporting, depending on the organizations you’re considering traveling with.

· Present stats about how altruistic acts support our health. For example, being altruistic release endorphins that activate areas of the brain associated with trust, pleasure and social connection, and reduces stress, improves the immune system, and helps us live longer. Bam.

· And last but not least, bribery. We’re not above bribing Hudson with treats, toys or special activities to get him past the initial resistance he feels towards an activity we know will be good for him. And if you don’t need bribery to get your kids to go along with your not-immediately-appealing ideas, more power to ya :-)

As a family, select the organization you’ll volunteer for.

Man painting a coral fence teal during a volunteer vacation

As you research volunteer travel opportunities with the family, hone in on those providing a service you’re all interested in, and that allow families (especially those with young children) to travel with them. Selecting an organization partaking in a service your entire family can get excited about helps prevent the occurrence of disgruntled children or spouses before and during the trip. For example, if your family is passionate about animals, joining a volunteer trip with a group of vets can be a score.

However, before you get the family hyped about a particular trip, contact the organization to learn more about the specific jobs your various family members will likely be assigned, ensuring they’re tasks you’ll all be interested in.

Choose an area you’re keen to visit.

Exotic beach hut on an island in the tropics

In addition to being passionate about the type of volunteer work you’ll be engaged in, you also want to make sure it’s in an area you’re all curious to explore. As you’re making your selection, make a list of the various trips you’re considering, the work you’ll be doing, the destination, and any travel costs you’ll have to cover. This simple breakdown of choices helps you make an informed decision. Then, to make sure you get to enjoy all your destination of choice has to offer...

Extend your trip, allowing for a few days of relaxation and exploration.

Woman sitting on the beach at sunset after volunteering on vacation

After multiple days of volunteer work, you deserve a full-on vacation. So when you’re asking for time off and booking airfare, tack a few days on the trip, and find accommodations to post up in for those additional days. We’re big believers in treating yourself to a few luxuries after an altruistic job well done, so go ahead and splurge on posh digs, or activities like scuba diving, zip lining or any other intriguing adventure.

Get your kids excited about the experience with books and media.

Child reading a book under a tree while on a trip

Developmentally, it’s natural for kids to be egocentric and not really understand the point of volunteering. So first off, don’t be concerned if your child seems wholly uninterested in this vacation idea. However, to help them develop an interest in volunteering, and the area you’ll be visiting, try out the following:

· Show them age-appropriate documentaries about the organization you’ll be working with, the type of volunteer work you’ll be engaging in, or the destination you’ll be in.

· Read them children’s books about volunteer work. Some good ones include…

-The Littlest Volunteers by Danielle Speckhart

-Uncle Willie and the Soup Kitchen by Dyanne DiSalvo-Ryan and Mira Reisberg

-The Can Man by Laura E. Williams

For teens and young adults we suggest the following:

· Watch shows or films that feature altruistic acts. For example…

o The Blind Side

o Pay It Forward

Speak with a past or current volunteer to gain an accurate view of what to expect.

Woman in yellow sweater researching volunteer travel opportunities

Although each volunteer trip is a bit different, you can gain the inside scoop on what a trip with a particular organization is like (e.g., leadership, organization of trip and schedules, accommodations, food, hours, emotional strain, etc.) by asking the non-profit for the contact info of one of their current or past volunteers. Then, reach out and ask if they’d be willing to answer your questions and tell you about their experience.

Chronicle your experiences.

Notebook on cafe table with notes about volunteer tourism

You can deepen the value of volunteer tourism by making a plan for how each family member will connect with and record the trip. For example, if your spouse writes poetry they might choose to write poems about the feelings, people, hardships, or ah-ha moments that they encounter. If you have a child who likes to draw or paint, bring along art supplies to support their creative medium. Journaling and photography are other popular choices for capturing the nuances of the many layers of a transformative journey.

Have nightly check-ins.

Family hugging on a log after volunteering

Committing to a nightly discussion with your family during the trip, to chat about aspects of the day that were challenging, joyful, surprising and so on, will not only help you all reflect on how this adventure is impacting you, but promotes family bonding. In addition, this is a prime time to help children process any challenging experiences or emotions triggered by the volunteer work.

To start your search for the ideal volunteer travel opportunity, check out GoEco.

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