Everyone knows that vacations do the body (and soul) good. But why keep all that good to yourself? More and more, travelers are using volunteer tourism, aka "voluntourism," as a way to see the world while giving back. Most often you need to pay to work for these programs. And while prices are not nominal, each trip provides tons of opportunity to leave your mark on a community or an eco-system. No, the change you threw into the Trevi Fountain doesn't count, nor does that snorkel fin you lost in Costa Rica. So we rounded up a few choice volunteer trips to get you started – teach a child, conserve a forest, build a library, and feed your soul.
*Note that program costs do not typically include flights, and it's important to check the details on programs' websites, as trips and tasks can vary in physical difficulty.
If you're looking to get back to nature, there's no better way than by taking care of it. Many eco-tourism or conservation programs let you get up close and personal with fuzzy, furry, or scaly friends who need help. They can involve anything from research on habitat and climate to simply care-giving.
Earthwatch: Earthwatch hooks up individuals and families to biological research projects across the globe. Donations range from about $350-$5195 depending on the type of trip. As part of their upcoming program "On the Trail of Giant Pandas," located in Chengdu, in the Sichuan province of China, (May through October for six to 12 day stints), volunteers take care of giant panda mothers and cubs at the Ya'an Bifengxia panda base. You'll even have access to the panda nursery, if you can stand all that cuteness.
American Hiking Society: Hiking fiends know how important a well-maintained trail is; besides safety, it provides access to spectacular views without the huffing and puffing associated with scrambling over downed trees or slogging through overgrown vegetation (we may or may not be speaking from frustrating personal experiences). The American Hiking Society brings the outdoorsy and otherwise out to join them on trail maintenance excursions across the United States. In August, the team heads to Iao Valley State Park in Hawaii, where they will create field sites used by the Hawaii Nature Center in its educational programming, as well as some trail and stream maintenance, and invasive vegetation assault. Donations are $275 for Non-Members.
Working with Children
There is nothing quite as rewarding as making a positive impact on the life of a child, especially a child in desperate need. Many volunteer vacation programs offer the opportunity to work with orphans in developing countries. Volunteers teach, care-take, and play with the kids, ultimately making new friends and setting these young people up with life skills that make for a brighter future.
United Planet: Teaching, women's projects, healthcare, conservation – United Planet offers a long list of volunteer opportunities, including their Orphanage Projects, which partners teens and adults with orphanages across the world. Their program in Romania is year round, and volunteers can stay for up to 12 weeks. Travelers can explore the Carpathian Mountains while they educate and play with the children, help run a summer camp, or work on construction or health aid projects on site. Fees start at $1665, but some discounts are available.
Hope and Home: Hope and Home connects volunteers to opportunities around Nepal, including an orphanage in Kathmandu where they can play, teach, and train children in life skills they might not otherwise learn surrounded by (the vastly beautiful) countryside. Tours of the area are done during orientation. Trip durations are available in two week increments up to 12 weeks, and program fees start at $400.
Construction and Restoration
Many opportunities are available to travelers looking to work in community development – whether that's rebuilding homes and environmental structures in developing countries or helping to create self-sustainable practices in poorer areas, and as a result leaving indelible marks on the restoration or growth of communities all over the world.
Elevate: Elevate creates worldwide itineraries in what they call Responsive Travel – "travel that makes a difference to the countries we visit." This may include donating part of their profits to conservation and community development, short volunteer stints as part of itineraries, or full-fledged volunteer vacations. This summer, they will lead one and two week trips to Haiti as part of their Elevate Haiti program. Volunteers will work with the young program of Let Haiti Live to help with the reforestation efforts in Haiti. This is a once (or twice or thrice) in a lifetime opportunity to reach out to a nation that has lost everything, and give it something. The program runs in July, with prices starting at $1500.
Global Vision International (GVI): The prolific Global Vision International has volunteer programs in 25 countries around the world, so you're sure to find one that matches your interests and abilities. For instance, one of their construction projects, located in Cape Town, South Africa, puts volunteers in schools in some of city's poorest neighborhoods, where they help maintain and repair buildings, creating a safe learning space. Time is left to explore the region with safari and wine-tasting excursions. The program is available year-round, for durations of one to four weeks, with prices starting at $1607.
Photo Credits: 1. Courtesy American Hiking Society; 2. Courtesy United Planet; 3. Courtesy Elevate Destinations