Volunteer vacations, sometimes called “voluntours” or “service learning tours,” offer you the opportunity to give something back while traveling. Whatever your skills or interests, you can find a rewarding volunteer vacation experience. You can find service learning opportunities through national and international organizations. Let’s take a closer look at some of these groups.
Earthwatch Institute engages volunteers in its science research and education projects. Volunteers work in the field with scientists, conservation experts and educators on a wide variety of assignments. In 2007, 38 percent of Earthwatch volunteers were 50 or older. Earthwatch funds projects each year in various scientific fields, including public health, marine science and conservation biology.
You can find volunteer opportunities that match your interests, budget and vacation preferences by using the Earthwatch website’s handy expedition search engine. Because Earthwatch offers such a variety of trips, you should read each expedition’s trip description carefully. Some trips include accommodations and meals, but others do not. Trip lengths and difficulty levels vary, too. Trip prices do not include transportation to and from the expedition location, nor do they include visas or travel insurance.
Earthwatch expeditions take place both outdoors and inside. You may find yourself cataloguing plant specimens at the Smithonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., or counting dolphins off the coast of the Greek island of Vonitsa. Unless you’re going on a diving trip, no special training is required.
Cross-Cultural Solutions gives volunteers a chance to help people in 12 countries. This international organization sponsors trips of varying lengths. If you have limited time to spend, you can travel with the one-week Insight Abroad program. Insight Abroad volunteers work on group projects. If you’d rather volunteer for a longer period, you can choose the Volunteer Abroad program, which ranges from two to 12 weeks in length.
On a Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteer trip, you could spend time helping out at a local orphanage or assisting elderly people with daily housekeeping tasks. Cross-Cultural Solutions determines where you will work based on your skills, interests and trip length. Meals and lodging are provided, but you will need to pay for your transportation to and from your destination. Laundry service, visas, immunizations and telephone calls are your responsibility. Cross-Cultural Solutions provides travel medical insurance for its volunteers.
Approximately ten percent of Cross-Cultural Solutions’ volunteers are 50 or older, according to Kam Santos, Cross-Cultural Solutions’ Director of Communications.
Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteers work in the local community for four or five hours each weekday. They spend weekday afternoons pursuing a variety of activities, including lectures, trips and cultural activities. Weekends and some afternoons and evenings are reserved for free time. Santos says that many volunteers choose to travel around their host country or explore the local area.
Because Cross-Cultural Solutions volunteers work in a variety of countries, you should carefully consider all aspects of your trip before you reserve a space. Some of the “Home-Base” accommodations are located in areas where hot water or electricity may be in short supply. Private rooms are not available. Of course, living like the locals – or close to it, anyway – is part of what volunteer travel is all about.
Habitat for Humanity International
Habitat for Humanity International, a Christian non-profit organization with affiliates in over 90 countries, is dedicated to providing affordable housing for low-income families. Partner families must put in a minimum number of work hours, called “sweat equity,” toward the construction of their residence. Teams of volunteers, directed by trained crew leaders, work on home construction tasks.
Habitat offers many different types of volunteer programs. Habitat’s RV Care-a-Vanners, for example, bring their RVs to builds around the country. RV Care-a-Vanners spend ten days working on home construction projects. Habitat provides free or low-cost RV hookups for the volunteers. As with all Habitat building opportunities, all you need to bring is a set of personal hand tools, work shoes and gloves and a willing heart. You don’t need to know anything about home construction; the Habitat crew leader will show you what to do.
If you would like to help build homes far away from your own residence, Habitat offers Global Village Program trips to countries in Africa, Eastern Europe, Asia and North and South America. On a Global Village trip, you will spend most of your time helping to build homes, but you'll have time for travel and / or local sightseeing. Global Village trip fees include lodging, meals, ground transportation and insurance. Transportation to and from your destination country is not included.
Another way to help out on a Habitat project on a short-term basis is to contact a local Habitat for Humanity affiliate and ask about joining a build for a few days. For example, Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity, located in West Virginia’s Potomac Highlands, builds homes in Pendleton County, home to Seneca Rocks and Spruce Knob, West Virginia’s highest mountain. You can work on a Habitat build for a couple of days, perhaps on Thursday and Friday, and spend the weekend hiking, kayaking or simply enjoying mountain scenery.
According to John Connor, Director of Development, short-term volunteers are very welcome. Perhaps because Pendleton County is just three hours by car from Washington, D.C., Almost Heaven Habitat for Humanity’s volunteers come from many areas. You can participate in a Habitat build or renovation with as little as one week’s notice by contacting Almost Heaven’s Volunteer Coordinator. Because funds are needed to purchase construction materials and equipment, volunteers are asked to make a daily donation to Habitat; $25 per day is the suggested amount. You'll need to arrange transportation and lodging.