Volunteer Vacations

Maybe it’s time to make your vacation count for more than self-serving recreation and spend those precious weeks changing the world.

Many volunteer vacations give travelers an opportunity to protect wildlife and improve habitats in some of the world's most fascinating locations.
College students from any institution and any academic major can earn college credit while making a difference in the world.
There are organizations such as WorldTeach that work to meet the educational needs of developing countries by providing quality teachers who share a passion for service and travel.

It goes without saying that one’s vacation time is often in limited supply and therefore a treasured occasion to break away from the norms of everyday life. We pack our bags and head somewhere warmer like our favorite beach resort or somewhere colder like the slopes of a snow-covered mountain. Every once in awhile, we take that bucket list excursion to Europe or South America and see those places that caught our attention on the Travel Channel. But what do we really gain from such ventures, other than a new photo album for our Facebook account, a few too many room service receipts or a couple of interesting anecdotes to recap an otherwise standard vacation? The idea of spending your vacation time serving a greater cause has many names, but voluntourism seems to best capture the heart of the matter. It’s based on the desire to see the sites, embark on an adventure and experience new cultures while lending a hand and leaving your mark on the world. You’ll still get your pictures, your anecdotes and your sunburn, but you’ll also spend your time making a difference. This crazy idea becomes a not-so-crazy reality when you consider the well-established organizations ready to make voluntourism the focus of your next vacation.
    One such organization is Globe Aware, based out of Dallas. Globe Aware focuses on promoting global awareness and sustainability around the world while putting the emphasis on meeting the distinctive needs of host communities. Volunteer vacationers might help construct wells and water systems in Ghana or help preserve native elephant habitat in Thailand or provide in-home care to impoverished children living in Cuzco, Peru. In addition to their particular project, volunteers are given an unparalleled opportunity to bond with the people and live the culture in ways a typical tourist excursion would never provide. As you learn to cook local cuisine and interact with the locals, you’ll occasionally stop to consider who is benefitting more from the experience. And whether you’re a solo traveler, a family with children or a large corporate group looking to make a difference, Globe Aware provides safe opportunities to create change.
    Want to take a vacation while making a difference in the global environment? Join the Earthwatch Institute and take part in field research projects that improve and protect wildlife and habitat in the world’s most fascinating locations. Earthwatch has been supporting scientific research for four decades through tax-deductible donations and adventurous volunteers from all walks of life. Capture and handle koalas in Australia or take soil samples in Manitoba as you assist experienced staff studying the influences of climate change throughout the world. Study humpback whales off the coast of Norway, sharks in Belize or sea turtles in the Bahamas as you help scientists study the condition of our oceans’ health. Or investigate the archeological significance of burial cairns and rock art in Mongolia or the Khmer Empire in Ban Non Wat, Thailand. With the right organization, you can take a vacation while also being a good steward of the earth. 
    College students from any institution and any academic major can join the University of Minnesota’s Learning Abroad Center and earn college credit while making a difference in the world. Classroom and experiential learning are enhanced by international development opportunities through internships and projects with non-profit organizations in places like Ecuador, India and Kenya. Imagine a study-abroad opportunity where you give of yourself rather than simply receive a few extra marks on your transcript.
    High school and college students can also take part in any of United Planet’s short-term volunteer opportunities, ranging from one to 12 weeks, perfect for those empty summers between the semesters. United Planet is a global non-profit focused on building respectful relationships while addressing global challenges. Work in orphanages in Romania or Tanzania; provide healthcare in Ecuador or Peru; volunteer at a women’s shelter in Chile or a counseling center for victims of abuse in Katmandu; build homes in Chile or plant seeds in Ecuador. Yes, you can even spend your spring break volunteering and return to school with far more interesting stories than your classmates who went to Cancun.
    Teachers, listen up. WorldTeach is a non-profit organization that works to meet the education needs of developing countries by delivering quality teachers who share a passion for both travel and service. Since 1986, this Harvard University-based organization has been placing teachers in all corners of the globe, including Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and South America. WorldTeach offers year, semester and summer programs and provides loads of training and professional development while giving volunteer educators the ability to choose their destination. So next summer, rather than passing the summer months poolside, you could teach English in Costa Rica, life skills in Morocco or computer skills in Namibia. Each of these programs is a nine- to 10-week commitment, costing less than $4,000 for training, insurance and housing.
    So rethink that Disneyland vacation and take the family on a life-changing adventure that will foster a much stronger sense of what it means to break away from the ordinary. Allow yourself the opportunity to grow and give back and dare to see what higher purpose that passport might serve this year.