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Vacations With a Heart: Voluntourism Opportunities Around the World

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Volunteers/Teamwork (Photo: iStockphoto/Jeanell Norvell)
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on February 11, 2010. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: adventure travel, Jaclyn Liechti, volunteer travel.

What better time to show your love for the world than Valentine's Day? Volunteer vacations provide a way to lend a helping hand, whether it's across the globe or close to home. And with Disney's new Give a Day, Get a Disney Day promotion, you can even earn a free ticket to a Disney park. Whether you want to spend a few weeks building communities, or just tack on an extra day to your vacation, you can make a difference by donating your time and efforts to places in need.

Disaster Relief

With the Haiti earthquake so fresh in the minds of people around the world, many are seeking to do more than donate money. Currently, most organizations are not taking volunteers for service in Haiti, but keep an eye out for announcements from organizations like the Red Cross, United Way, Oxfam, and others on ways you can help. One charity, Hands On Disaster Response, just announced Project Leogane, and volunteers can sign up to help remove rubble and eventually build transitional shelters. There is no fee to help out, but airfare is not covered by the organization.

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Five years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is still trying to recover from the disastrous effects, and those interested in volunteering relief assistance have a variety of options. New Orleans Area Habitat for Humanity provides opportunities for groups or for individuals with all levels of experience, and volunteers can serve for a minimum of one day, leaving plenty of time to explore the jazz clubs and cuisine of the city. The New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau lists several more opportunities for volunteers, including painting and landscaping with Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New Orleans; repairing homes with Beacon of Hope; gutting and rebuilding houses and mentoring with Katrina Corps; and many others. Tourists can also assist in the recovery of City Park by helping to plant trees and plants; although much of the debris has been cleared away, the park is still in long-range recovery to replace what was lost. Most organizations require a minimum of a half day or one day of service. Some of the groups request a small fee ($10 to $50) to cover equipment, insurance, and administration costs.

Indonesia is still recovering from the devastating earthquakes that shook the nation in September 2009. Hands on Disaster Response's Project Sungai Geringging in Sumatra is accepting volunteers through April 2 to assist with salvaging materials, building transitional shelters, and more. The organization provides housing, meals, and tools at no charge, but travelers must pay their own transportation costs. There is no minimum time requirement, which means that those interested in seeing the rest of the country can drop in for a day before heading out to see the sights, or stay as long as there is a need for help.

The recent floods in Peru have displaced many people, including those in the Ccaccaccollo community, where Planeterra provides tours to a women's weaving co-op through Gap Adventures. The organization is asking all travelers to Cusco, including those on its Cusco Kids Project and Project Peru volunteer vacations, to bring donations of blankets, sleeping bags, tents, and dried food to the Hotel Tupac Yupanqui.

Teaching

Although many teaching programs require long-term commitments, there are several organizations that offer shorter vacations for English speakers. Global Volunteers, a private, non-profit organization, offers volunteer vacations to teach conversational English in countries such as Ecuador, Ghana, Italy, Poland, and Vietnam. All that's needed is a native level of speaking, and standard programs are two weeks, though shorter, one-week trips are also available. In Italy, for example, volunteers will teach middle and high school students for a standard 40-hour week, and have weekends free to explore the Puglia region. The trip costs range from $995 to $3,195, and include lodging, meals, in-country transportation, and a project donation; the fee is also tax deductible. Additionally, returning volunteers, families, and students receive a discount on the price.

Work & Volunteering Abroad (WAVA) also provides volunteers with opportunities to teach in other countries, either in a formal or informal setting. In Prague, English-speakers can spend three weeks with a Czech family assisting children with English skills. The cost of £490 (about $671, see XE.com for current conversion rates) covers meals and accommodations in a homestay. Or, volunteers can spend two or more weeks teaching in a secondary school in Uganda. For stays shorter than one month, guests can teach sports or painting to students. The program fee starts from £420 (about $575) and includes a project donation, lodging, and meals.

Environmental Conservation

Environmental voluntourism can take many different forms, from sea turtle conservation to hiking trail construction, and opportunities exist both near and far. The American Hiking Society offers six- to ten-day volunteer vacations year-round in several states, including Hawaii, Minnesota, and West Virginia. Volunteers can help eliminate invasive weeds in Alaska's Chugach National Forest, repair the Shepherd Pass Trail in California, or help stop trail erosion in Virgin Islands National Park. Nonmembers can join the trips for a $275 ($250 if registered before February 28) fee, which includes meals, park fees, a crew leader, and often airport pickups. Accommodations for most trips are based on camping, and participants must provide their own tents, as well as airfare costs.

Sierra Club members can take advantage of service trips that help preserve public lands but still offer time to explore a destination. Its volunteer vacations are typically less expensive than its other outings, but still include plenty of time for leisure activities. Offerings this year include removing non-native plants at Point Reyes National Seashore in California. This week-long trip includes two days off for exploring the surrounding area, and the price of $595 includes meals, accommodations, and necessary tools. Members can also take an eight-day expedition to assist the U.S. Forest Service on various projects in Kentucky's beautiful Red River Gorge. One free day and one day dedicated to boating in Mill Lake or hiking provide ample opportunities to explore this national natural landmark. The $375 trip price includes meals and necessary tools; participants must bring their own tents. Membership to the Sierra Club is available for a nominal $15 donation.

The Earthwatch Institute is a global program that offers expeditions around the world ranging from three days to two weeks. Participants can assist with archaeology, ocean health, and threatened animals. Trips for 2010 include assisting with research at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia; counting lizards or frogs, tagging vine species, and testing ways to sustainably manage tropical rainforests in Puerto Rico; and studying small mammals or coyotes in New York City. Prices and their inclusions vary.

Gap Adventures also provides opportunities to work with and protect endangered or threatened animals. Project China is a two-week expedition through Shanghai, Xi'an, and Beijing. Five days are spent volunteering at the Bifengxia Panda Center, and the rest of the time is used to explore the Terra Cotta soldiers, the Forbidden City, the Great Wall, and other Chinese sites. The trip costs $1,899, which includes orientation walks of Shanghai and Xi'an; tours of the Shaolin Kung Fu Display, the Terracotta Warriors, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, and Tiananmen Square; the volunteer stay at the Panda Reserve; in-country transport; and accommodations. The 15-day Project Costa Rica tour includes five days on a Sea Turtle Conservation Project monitoring a baby turtle hatchery, counting and releasing baby turtles, and cleaning the beach. The remainder of the trip provides time to explore the Monteverde cloud forest and the town of La Fortuna. The $949 price tag covers a horseback riding excursion, a guided visit to the Santa Elena Cloud Forest Reserve, the sea turtle conservation project, some meals, in-country transportation, and accommodations.

Community Building

Habitat for Humanity works in many cities and towns across the United States, but it also offers volunteer vacations with its Global Village program, through which travelers help construct houses and spend a few days exploring an area. Trips range from far-flung destinations such as Kenya, New Zealand, Poland, and Brazil to U.S. locations, including Alaska, Mississippi, and South Carolina. International trips cost between $1,200 and $2,500, while U.S. trips cost between $900 and $1,900. Costs include room and board, travel insurance, and a donation, but airfare is additional.

Gap Adventures offers several volunteer vacations that promote community in different ways. The nine-day Project Ecuador Highlands includes five days helping an indigenous family with daily activities, volunteering at the local daycare and school, or working on the organic farm. For one person, the cost is $839, but groups of two or three can save about $200 per person. The price also incorporates guided tours to the equator, indigenous villages, and Peguche Waterfall and Cuicocha Lake; a visit to Otavalo Market; some meals; in-country transportation; and accommodations. During the 10-day Project Galapagos vacation, travelers will volunteer with the local community to build an eco-playground out of recycled materials, and have time to visit the Charles Darwin Research Station and swim, dive, and snorkel in the crystal-blue waters. The trip cost of $1,299 includes accommodations, but not meals or airfare.

Globe Aware, a non-profit 501 (c) (3) organization, offers volunteer vacations around the globe, including Brazil, Jamaica, Romania, and Thailand. In Romania, travelers will spend a week improving a kindergarten, building homes, or working with needy children. The price of $1,390 includes meals, accommodations, on-site transport, administrative costs, and a donation. The Thailand expedition focuses on assisting Buddhist monks by helping at a nursery, teaching basic English, giving fundamental computer instruction, assisting the elderly, and other outreach activities. The cost for the week-long trip includes the same amenities as the Romania trip for $1,090.

Destinations

If you already have a vacation planned or have your heart set on a certain destination, it's still possible to volunteer your time with local organizations. Many convention and visitors bureaus have a voluntourism section on their websites. For example, travelers to Aruba can sponsor a mile of beach on the third Wednesday of each month. In Colorado, visitors can spend three days building or re-routing trails with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative. And if you're heading to Vancouver for the Olympics, opportunities for volunteering include pulling invasive ivy with the Stanley Park Ecology Society on February 13 or 28 (contact the park for more details and further dates).

Your Turn

The opportunities for volunteer vacations are nearly endless, and I've only touched the tip of the iceberg. What trips sound like the most fun to you? Have you taken a voluntourism expedition? Do you know of any organizations or expeditions not mentioned here? Please share in the comments section below.

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