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Anyone who has gone on vacation knows that in many places just beyond the luxurious tourist areas, locals often exist with varying degrees of need. If you feel compelled to help but feel torn between a relaxing vacation and an all-out humanitarian trip to the jungles of Borneo, travel expert Claire Newell can help.
Newell says a third option is gaining in popularity: voluntourism. The hybrid combines the relaxation of a standard vacation with the rewards of volunteer work. Newell has more than 16 years of experience in the travel industry and will host her own PBS series about voluntourism beginning in January 2010.
“What people need to know is that you don’t have to give up your vacation, your humanitarian trips or your charity work,” she says. “You still make your vacation a vacation, but you can enhance it by taking any amount of time you choose to help others.” The feeling you get from helping others rivals even the bliss of lounging in the sun on a beautiful beach.
Each episode of Newell’s show will follow a group of similar people on a voluntourism trip. “We want to show not only how their experience helps the people [they’re working with], but also how it changes them,” she says. The goal is to show the beauty of each destination, but also the great need for volunteer efforts in each location that will inspire people to become more involved.
“We want other people to see how even in the most beautiful places you can find need,” Newell says. “I live in a beautiful city, for instance, but it has a tough area that many people have never even seen. Hopefully, they will see the show and want to find their own voluntourism opportunities.”
Travelers often come to Newell for advice, intrigued by the concept of volunteer work on vacation but clueless as to how to get started. She believes there is a perfect trip for any situation, life stage or time span—that’s the beauty of it.
Newell set up a trip for a group of bachelors who hung out at Las Vegas clubs after spending four hours volunteering at a soup kitchen. “I think sitting by a pool and dancing at nightclubs is such a great feeling, but there’s nothing better than the feeling you get from giving. And once you do it, you want to do it again.”
Voluntourism isn’t just for the single and adventurous. Newell has found that people who are a little bit older—maybe retired or empty-nesters—can usually give more of themselves on a volunteer vacation than people with kids. But even with the pressures and time constraints that come with children, parents are finding that modeling service to their kids is an invaluable gift.
Newell knows this from experience. She began traveling with her kids when they were very young, but, like a typical family, they usually stayed within the tourist-friendly areas. As the kids grew older, Newell decided it was time to expose them to places more off the beaten path. Initially, they took simple medical supplies, clothes and toys on their trips and gave them to hotel staff, who would distribute the items to kids in need.
The feeling that comes from helping others can rival even the bliss of lounging in the sun on a beautiful beach.
Newell says her children weren’t completely on board at first: “They said, ‘Why are we helping people we don’t even know?’ But the first time they saw the expression on the [other] kids’ faces, just from things our kids didn’t want or need anymore, they were the first to say, ‘Where are we going? Who can we help now?’ ”
She believes introducing kids to voluntourism early can broaden their perspective and help them to see themselves as global citizens, making them more open to experiencing different foods, languages and cultures.
Newell says planning a voluntourism trip for your family is easy with a little research. She recommends using the Web and finding a charitable organization in your selected destination. But call ahead of time—don’t show up on their doorstep unannounced and expect them to organize something for you.
The sheer number and variety of opportunities available can make it difficult to choose. Newell’s second recommendation: Follow whatever tugs at your heart. There are orphanages in Romania and China that need volunteers, wells to be dug in Africa, houses to be built for Habitat for Humanity, and many other needs right in your own backyard.
Most of the trips don’t require more than a day, and they don’t have to be physically intensive. They also allow you to encounter a broader spectrum of sightseeing and culture.
As popularity rises, and more and more people experience the joy and exhilaration that come from combining relaxation with service, an increasing number of organizations and agencies around the world have begun to put together packages to meet both needs. There are an estimated 10,000 projects to choose from.
The options range from the familiar to the exotic. The Tibetan Village Project, for example, offers a peerless chance for “the mindful traveler who not only wants to see the beautiful sights of Tibet, but to touch, taste and experience life in Tibet,” says its Web site. Participants can meditate with nuns, cook for orphans, share tea with nomads or teach environmental ethics.
Each program is unique. Closer to home, many old lighthouses are being shut down, but the National Park Service and numerous historic societies and other civic groups have begun to acquire them and are now searching for volunteers to help preserve these pieces of history. Programs allow visitors to stay in an authentic lighthouse for a week or more, pitching in on maintenance and renovations.
Newell recounts the story of how her brother and his wife went to Madagascar to help build a well and cook food—one of the options on the more physically demanding side of the spectrum.
Her own most treasured experience, though, is going with another couple and her children to Maui for vacation and volunteering to help out in an endangered sea turtle habitat. “It taught our children about the environmental impact the modern world was having. It was incredible and they loved it so much,” she says.
Almost everyone has felt the compulsion to help those they see in need while on vacation. Now more than ever, voluntourism provides an opportunity for people who want to see the world and change it. In the process, they might be changed as well.
Claire Newell's Suggestions for Planning Your Voluntouism
Comprehensive information on voluntourism. Includes articles, research forums, a blog, podcasts and much more.
Like a travel agency for ethical holidays. Experienced staff puts together packages for volunteering adventures, doing the work for you.
A group that puts together volunteering packages serving children around the world through short-term humanitarian service trips and sustainable programs.
A nonprofit that offers safe volunteer vacations all over the world for individual travelers, families, and corporate or custom groups.
Also offers voluntourism trip packages or individual projects. Site details teaching and reading partner programs for kids, IT/administrative/marketing and medical/physiotherapy trips for skilled voluntourism.