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How Do I Talk to My Family about a Volunteer Vacation?

By Carol Weisman, author of Raising Charitable Children

The best family vacations happen when you do something very different from your normal, everyday life. Other than poorer, how do you as a family want to be different when returning home? Do you want to be rested, or energized? Educated? Spiritually nourished? Tan? Inspired? Thinner? Fitter? Fatter? Closer as a family?

Are there talents you want to develop, such as homebuilding and repair, gardening and forestry, or speaking a foreign language? Are there talents your family already has that you want to share with others?

Think about the opposite of your everyday lives and how you can live that out in a volunteer vacation. This will not only broaden your horizons; doing something totally different will appeal to children's sense of adventure. City dwellers might want to consider volunteering at a national park or forest. A family of ranchers, who normally engages in lots of physical labor, could teach reading to inner-city kids for a change of pace.

You can also spark a child's interest in a volunteer vacation by tying it into pop culture. Whatever's hot in TV, movies and games - George of the Jungle, March of the Penguins, The Amazing Race, etc. - there's a trip and a volunteer project to match. After all, a vacation is like a little bit of Harry Potter - without the wand.

Which Volunteer Vacation Should I Choose?

These days a surprising number of reputable non-profit associations and placement agencies have pre-planned volunteer vacations available. Many of these groups you've probably already hear of - like Habitat for Humanity International or the Sierra Club - while others are lesser known because they work on a smaller scale, such as Global Volunteers or Volunteers for Peace. Most of these groups offer package-style vacations, providing accommodations, meals, itineraries, tools and instructors.

Given the wide range of choices out there, you and your family can scale down the possibility by asking yourselves questions like:

  • How "rustic" are you? Could the whole family tolerate living in tents for a week, or going without showering?
  • Are the kids big and strong enough to handle things like hammering or heavy lifting?
  • Does anybody in the family speak a foreign language?
  • Does anybody have a medical condition that could become a problem in certain locales or climates?
  • Is there a particular cause you're strongly drawn to, like protecting an endangered species or stopping the spread of AIDS in Africa?

For most volunteer-vacation opportunities, though, all that's really needed is a desire to help. If you're willing to put in the time and effort, any number of organizations will help you find a vacation that suits you and your family, even if you've never picked up a screwdriver or pulled up a weed in your life.

How Much Does a Volunteer Vacation Cost?

Just like with regular vacations, there truly are volunteer vacations to fit any budget. You can always stick closer to home to cut down on travel costs. Financial planning for a volunteer vacation is simple and totally worth it. Some volunteer vacations are scheduled for certain dates and lengths of time, but with others you can be flexible about the length of your stay, which can also reduce your costs.

Almost always, a volunteer vacation will also carry a fee (usually partially or fully tax-deductible; make sure to check) that you'll pay directly to the non-profit organizations, ranging anywhere from fifty to a few thousand dollars. This usually covers things like food, accommodations, and any materials or equipment you might use in carrying out your volunteer work. The fee might also include a monetary donation to help offset the group's administrative costs.

Transportation expense to and from the volunteer site are rarely, if ever, covered by the non-profit agencies that administer these volunteer vacations. You'll be responsible for arranging and paying for any and all travel costs on your own.

How Can We Prepare for Our Family's Volunteer Vacation?

The more wildly different your choice of vacation vis-à-vis your normal life, the more preparation and training you'll need to do. Physical training beforehand is usually very important; it will prevent injury to yourself, thus allowing you to be more helpful to others.

Cultural differences also require preparations - for the sake of your own family, as well as the people you'll be working with and helping. You don't want anybody behaving in a gauche fashion when exposed to these different populations, especially if you're working with the young, sick or elderly. You also don't want you children to be overly alarmed by the new culture. Read the kids bedtime stories about the place you'll be visiting. Look at maps with them. If you're going to a place where a foreign language is spoken, teach them how to say things like "hello," "thank you," and "please" in that language.


Carol Weisman is a pediatric social worker and internationally recognized expert on philanthropy, funraising and non-profit governance. This article is excerpted with permission from her book Raising Charitable Children, which provides many helpful ideas for families who wish to contribute to a better society.

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