Volunteer projects, from helping poor communities to rescuing sea turtles, add meaning to family vacations in the U.S. and overseas.
Volunteering and giving back on vacation is a growing trend in family travel. Families are seeking meaningful trips where they can make a difference and make strong cross-cultural connections. Parents view family volunteer vacations as a way to live their values and impart them to their children. It also encourages kids to become stewards of the environment and citizens of the world.
This commitment to giving back is likely to grow. Recent research finds that over three-quarters of millennials say connecting with good causes is essential. Many tour companies, resorts and destinations offer programs that allow families to volunteer during their travels. Volunteering can be the sole focus of a family trip or an integral part of the group’s vacation activities. Travel planners are also designing cruise programs that enable families and church groups to give back at sea. Options are available for every venue and level of interest.
Family-Friendly Volunteer Vacations
Global Volunteers began offering family volunteering opportunities in the mid-1980s and has developed more domestic and international options since then. “Volunteering together allows a family to see each other in a multi-dimensional way and commit themselves to something larger, richer and more long-lasting than themselves,” says Michele Gran, Global Volunteers’ co-founder and senior vice president. “Children gain a global perspective and see how their lives are different and the same as others around the world and in other cultures in the U.S.”
Global Volunteers, Global Citizens Network, Cross-Cultural Solutions, Globe Aware and others offer family-friendly volunteer trips in the United States and around the world. Organizations such as The Nature Corps and the Sierra Club lead family trips to help with trail maintenance and restoration projects in national and state park areas.
A number of leading family-friendly tour companies, including Austin Adventures and Wildland Adventures, have found ways to customize their trips to enable families to become actively involved in community projects or leave a legacy as part of their travel experiences. Austin Adventures offers families a customized program in Namibia that includes bike rentals and tours through the community-based Wheels of Change project as well as volunteer possibilities with the community’s Elephant Pepper Chilli Project. This program is a true win-win for family groups and the local community.
“Today more and more parents want to share with their children how fortunate they are,” says Dan Austin, president of Austin Adventures. “What better way to do this than visit a foreign land and work with the locals to see firsthand how they live and make a meaningful volunteer contribution that will improve many aspects of their daily life.”
G Adventures also provides options for community involvement by integrating their Planeterra Foundation projects into a number of their trips.
“By simply traveling with G Adventures, guests spend locally and make a positive and tangible difference in the lives of the communities,” says Planeterra’s Adrienne Lee.
Giving Back in Vacation Destinations
Families and large groups heading to popular vacation destinations are often interested in devoting several hours or a full day to volunteering. Travel planners can make this happen by working with local organizations that welcome family vacationers in their activities. For example, Orlando’s Give Kids The World staffs more than 1,400 volunteer shifts each week at its 70-acre non-profit village providing free vacations to kids with life-threatening illnesses and their families. Along Florida’s Gulf coast, Bradenton offers a wealth of possibilities. Further south, parents and children can volunteer at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center.
After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was overwhelmed with volunteers who wanted to assist the community and join in the rebuilding effort. That continues to this day. Families and groups can volunteer with organizations such as Youth Rebuilding New Orleans and Beacon of Hope. HandsOn New Orleans provides an excellent clearing house for volunteer opportunities in the area.
Costa Rica is a popular destination for families who want to combine their vacation with giving back. Tour operators view Costa Rica as a safe destination for families and multigenerational groups with great accommodations, a wide variety of tours and attractions, and plenty of possibilities for community involvement. Resorts and lodges such as the Los Suenos Marriott Costa Rica and Lapa Rios provide guests with opportunities for giving back including rainforest preservation and providing supplies for local schools. Jamaica also enables vacationers to visit local schools and support communities through its free Meet the People program.
Together for Good, an organization focused on promoting giving back as part of the travel experience, is another useful resource for those wishing to integrate volunteering with their vacations, both on land and at sea. The website lists over 90 opportunities for travelers to give back in popular vacation destinations such as the Bahamas, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. Using the site’s database of contacts, families and groups have spent hundreds of hours of volunteering with organizations and delivered over 7,000 pounds of much-needed food, clothing, educational materials, medical supplies, and other in-kind items to local communities.
Resorts Make Volunteering Easy
Resort and hotels have joined in the commitment to sustainability and supporting their local communities. Several have foundations that provide opportunities for guests to give back while staying at their properties. For example, members and guests staying at the Grand Residences Riviera Cancun and other Royal Resorts properties can participate in a variety of activities through the Royal Resorts Foundation.
“As many of our members and guests return year after year and have grown attached to the staff and local communities, our ‘Spreading Happiness’ campaign offers a way to give back,” says Dr. Kemil A. Rizk, CEO of Royal Resorts. “From taking part in sea turtle protection to visiting senior citizens for the holidays, the activities bring Royal Resorts members, guests, owners and employees closer with our local communities.” Similar programs are available at Solmar Hotels & Resorts as well.
The Sandals Foundation offers a school-based program at Sandals Resorts, Beaches Resorts and Grand Pineapple Resorts in the Caribbean. Through the resorts’ Reading Road Trip program, families can read and interact with children at local schools. The resorts partner with Pack for a Purpose and encourage guests to bring along school supplies to support their local communities.
Conservation activities and sea turtle protection programs are great ways for families to volunteer at resorts. At the CasaMagna Marriott Puerto Vallarta Resort, families can participate in the “Sea Turtle Rescue” program that released over 36,700 baby sea turtles back into the sea in 2013 alone. At Playa Viva on Mexico’s Pacific Coast, guests work alongside local members of “La Tortuga Viva” at the Turtle Sanctuary and can assist the community in a variety of other ways. Volunteering pays off for families staying at the Westin St. John Resort. Guests who volunteer for part of the day at nearby Virgin Islands National Park receive a $100 resort credit that can be used at any of the facilities on the property.
Family volunteer vacations are rewarding in many ways. Families who give back often find that the time spent volunteering was one of the most memorable parts of their trip. As one teen told me recently, “It turned out to be an amazing experience so I guess my Mom was right – it is better to give than to receive.”
By Nancy Schretter