Volunteering abroad with your family is an excellent way to travel with purpose. Your kids won’t just experience a new culture – they’ll immerse themselves in it. It’s the easiest and most effective way to have a more meaningful holiday.
Don’t underestimate the impact that working together to make a positive impact will have on your family and their outlook on the world. A two-week trip to Disneyland will be quickly forgotten. The same amount of time at an orang-utan conservation project in Borneo will resonate throughout the rest of their lives.
For children and teenagers, volunteering as a family will play a big part in teaching them the value of altruism. It’s a trait that is sadly neglected these days, particularly as we retreat into our increasingly screen-orientated bubbles. But for 95% of the world’s population, helping each other is a necessary survival tool.
Your kids will also get to see the results of their hard work. Whether that’s a new water pump in a rural African village, or the sight of hundreds of tiny turtle hatchlings scurrying across the sand towards the sea, it’s an immensely rewarding experience.
Volunteering allows you to experience a side of a country that you wouldn’t normally see as a tourist. You’ll interact with locals and learn about their customs, participating in valuable cross-cultural exchange. Even for a short time, you’ll become part of a community rather than just passing through it.
This is equally true of wildlife-based volunteering projects. Most reputable conservation projects put a strong emphasis on education, getting volunteers to visit local communities to speak about the benefits of saving a particular species. This is often a two-way process, with volunteers gaining a valuable insight into the everyday struggle that communities face while trying to protect the environment and feed their families at the same time.
Many volunteering projects around the world are based on the protection of wildlife and the environment. From helping out at sea turtle sanctuaries in Sri Lanka to monitoring big cat populations in southern Africa, there are countless opportunities for you and your family to help endangered species.
Tasks vary from project to project, and many are dependent on the age of your child. Kids of all ages can muck in to clean out a turtle hatchling pool. Monitoring a cheetah and her cubs on a plain in South Africa is best left to the older ones.
Many respected adventure tour operators offer wildlife-themed volunteering holidays, including specialist volunteer operator The Great Projects.
The rise of technology and social media has created a generation of children that are increasingly anxious and depressed. Many withdraw into themselves, interacting with the world through their screens. The rise in depression, especially among teens, is alarming.
The good news is that studies have shown that doing things for others is a powerful self-esteem booster. By finding a project related to a cause your teen is interested in, you will give them a sense of purpose. Volunteering with them is also a wonderful opportunity to bond with them.
Be aware that volunteer tourism does have its dark side. Unscrupulous firms around the world have spotted the chance to turn a buck from altruism, with reports of fake orphanages and wildlife sanctuaries being created purely as a money-making venture.
There are things you can do, however, to ensure that your experience is both ethical and meaningful.
- Ask for a breakdown of where your money will go. Higher prices aren’t a sign of better quality, but transparency is. It’s not wrong for an organisation to make money, but most of it should go to the local community or project.
- Ask for examples of how previous volunteers have made a difference. The good projects have well-defined goals and tasks set in advance, as well as a clear idea of the difference they will make.
- Look for projects that are partnered with respected tour operators, like Audley Travel, who add on cultural immersion sections to the trip. These offer you a greater insight into the area you are visiting, and provide much-needed funds to help the communities you are visiting.
- Take particular care with wildlife volunteer projects. Not all ‘conservation’ projects are as altruistic as they seem. Look for projects that are supported by or affiliated with a conservation organisation and, while it sounds counter-intuitive, avoid those that promise lots of time handling the animals. The main aim of an ethical wildlife sanctuary should be to rescue, rehabilitate, and release as many animals as possible.
- Finally, make sure the community's needs come ahead of yours and your family’s. While it is important that your family reap the benefits of helping others and the environment, it should never be at the expense of the people you came to help.