“One’s destination is never a place, but rather a new way of looking at things.”Henry Miller
Those who travel know this well. The places we visit — whether it’s a state park near home or a safari in an exotic locale — have the power to change us in many ways, both simple and profound. We learn about ourselves and others, about being able to deal with uncertainty, about gratitude, about being in the moment and appreciating the world and extraordinary people around us.
What if your next trip could not only change you but change the world for the better? Have you considered taking a service-centered vacation?
As our world rapidly shrinks due to connectivity and easy access to information, we are becoming more aware of life outside of our small, comparatively privileged bubbles. More and more people are asking how they can make a difference.
Also known as “voluntourism,” service-based trips offer the opportunity to spend your vacation time, skills, and dollars with those who need them most. They’re also great opportunities for kids (and adults!) to learn empathy and gain a perspective on today’s most pressing issues like global poverty, the environmental impact of climate change, the well-being of children, and conservation of animals and the natural world.
Here are a few tips to get you started and help you make the most of any volunteer vacation.
Lead with your heart, but plan with your head.
Like any kind of travel, voluntourism is vulnerable to scams and fraud. I can provide you with names of reputable and responsible companies. Make sure you know what to pack, which vaccinations are required, which fees might apply, and what challenges (if any) might be present in the area or the work you’re about to engage in.
Look for opportunities that encourage relationships.
It can be easy and somewhat tempting to pop in someplace, make an appearance, and then leave. Your feel-good emotions are triggered, and you don’t have to commit much of yourself to a place or a project. But that shortchanges both you and the recipients of your good intentions.
The website GoVolunteerism puts it like this: “A balanced engagement alternating between voluntary service and tourism activities allows for a reciprocal relationship with communities. The economic impact of tourism is blended with the social impact of volunteering: recipients become servers and servers become recipients.”
If you’ve never been exposed to extreme poverty or the pressing plight of some of the globe’s endangered species, be aware that trips like these can be extremely emotionally demanding. Talk to people, research, ask questions, and be prepared for what you might see and experience.
Especially where kids are involved, always opt for good training and a true time commitment.
There are many people who have a deep heart for the suffering of children worldwide, and they want to do something to lift spirits and support good work. Again, look for reputable companies that understand the complex issues associated with working with children and other vulnerable populations. For example, breezing into town and spending an afternoon at an orphanage and then leaving the next day can be very distressing for kids who are already dealing with the pain of leaving and loss. A good volunteer organization will tell you exactly what is required of you to have the greatest positive impact on others’ lives — and you can decide if it’s a commitment you want to make.
Take time to rest and process.
When your engagement is over, take at least few days before leaving to get to know the community you’re visiting better (many organizations will build this into your trip), to rest, and to write or talk about your experience with others. Many people are surprised by how life-changing these trips can be — in the best possible ways! — and it can take a while to integrate that new perspective into your everyday life.
Stay in touch.
Even if you never visit that particular location again, it’s a good idea and can bring your experience full-circle if you stay connected to the organization you volunteered with. Sign up for newsletter updates; share photos you took; write a note or email a few times a year.