While visiting Panama on their round the world sailing journey in 2017, the Selkirk family noticed a “Volunteers Wanted” sign while visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute at Naos Island.
Located at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal, Naos Island Marine and Molecular Laboratories offered an opportunity for the family to roll up their sleeves and volunteer for a variety of tasks at the lab, including cleaning the facility and taking care of the local sloth population. For a few hours each day for a period of three weeks, the family worked alongside local teens and families, then retired to their catamaran each night.
“This was a chance to contribute to a place while we were there,” says Diane Selkirk, a writer now living on terra firma in Vancouver, Canada. “We saw what was needed, rather than planning an itinerary around a particular volunteer opportunity.”
One doesn’t have to be sailing around the world to find or recognize the benefits of volunteer abroad opportunities for families. Volunteering abroad can be an opportunity for families to challenge preconceived assumptions about how people live in other countries, and to learn from other cultures while working alongside local citizens in their own community.
From cultural understanding to building empathy and modelling positive behaviour for children, volunteering abroad can be rich in rewards. If you’re ready to experience transformative travel with your family, here’s how to get started.
How to find family-sized volunteer abroad opportunities
When looking to foster a spirit of volunteerism and service with kids, it’s vital to sit down as a family and determine age, budget and skill-appropriate volunteer opportunities. Let the kids participate in the planning; discuss how they’d like to serve the community in the destination you’ve chosen.
The next step is to find and choose an organization and volunteer experience that aligns with your family’s interests, skills and values. Unfortunately, few volunteer-sending organizations cater to families with kids younger than 16 years of age, due to the nature of the physical tasks and liability issues. Some tour companies do offer itineraries with a volunteering component—but they may be limited in scope, time and impact. And even for families with little time to spare, it’s still important to plan a trip that’s sustainable and meets the real needs of your destination.
As a result, coordinating a volunteer trip for your family using independent volunteer portals such as Workaway, Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) or Omprakash may be one of your best options. These sites link visitors with short and longer-term volunteer opportunities around the world. You may have to pay a small membership fee (usually between $50 and $100) to join these sites.
Workaway and WWOOF, in particular, have hosts who welcome families with kids. Parents can search the host list and directly contact host families, projects and NGOs to introduce your family and offer your services.
Finding a host who also has children would make the experience more engaging and allow participants to meet their volunteer obligations. If your kids have never worked the straw or soil, then get their hands dirty in a backyard or community garden at home in preparation for volunteering on a farm abroad. Finally, ensure that the host can accommodate the size and ages of your family members, can offer a range of volunteer tasks so everyone can pitch in, and is close to schooling if that is an issue. When signing up as a family, kids under 18 don’t pay a separate membership fee.
Reaching out to your network of friends, family, teachers and colleagues who can vouch for hosts or organizations from personal experience is another great place to start. Word-of-mouth recommendations from people you know and trust are invaluable.
When Nicolette Kay of southern California was researching a volunteer abroad trip with her two young children, she looked for trusted organizations with strong track records in the destination she was travelling to: Ensenada, Mexico.
“I looked at the financial reports. Did the money go to help those in need or those in charge?” recalls Kay. She suggests asking friends for advice and vetting organizations carefully.
Finding age-appropriate options
Longer-term volunteer opportunities may be well-suited for homeschooling families, but those with younger children may face unique challenges.
Sinead Camplin had a hard time finding volunteer placements during her family’s gap year. With three young children, both parents had to take turns looking after the kids while the other volunteered.
“Volunteering placements that provided accommodation would not take us, as we are a family of five and only two of us were volunteering,” says Camplin.
Her family had better success participating in self-organized volunteer opportunities wherever they travelled, including public litter cleanups and turtle releases. Upon touching down in a new destination, they Googled local community-led volunteer opportunities that their family could easily participate in during their stay.
"When the locals thanked us, they were amazed to find we were not locals ourselves."
"We spent a very hot morning picking up litter along the seashore in Kona, Hawaii. When the locals thanked us, they were amazed to find we were not locals ourselves,” she recalls.
Families with kids who are old enough to be more independent, capable of doing tasks and not yet attached to school sports or activities may have an easier time on a longer volunteer experience.
When Teresa Bigalow was nine years old, she spent the better part of a year volunteering on farms in New Zealand with her parents and 11-year-old brother through a WWOOF volunteer experience. “The kids were expected to help out and participate in the family chores, whether it was feeding cattle, pitching rocks out of fields, or pulling weeds,” recalls her mother, Mary Stoecker.
Those with older kids and teens whose availability is challenged by school calendars will need to find opportunities that exist during holiday breaks or the summer months.
It’s worthwhile to speak to school counsellors or administrators about possible school-organized service trips. Many high schools organize volunteer abroad trips for students during spring break, and there may be opportunities to volunteer as a parent chaperone and adult volunteer. Keep in mind that this may be less of a family experience than an opportunity for teens to interact with peers in service of a community abroad.
Likewise, if you do decide to plan an independent trip for your family, keep in mind that many high school students in Canada and the United States are required to log volunteer and community service hours as a requirement for graduation. Enquire with school administrators to confirm that any planned volunteer abroad work can be credited to meet this requirement.
Fitting it into your budget
As with planning a family holiday, budgeting for a family volunteer abroad experience will require some careful accounting. Depending on the destination, travel expenses for flights and accommodation can add up, so families need to know their budget before committing. Volunteer-sending organizations typically welcome those who can pay their own way or can fundraise for their experience. There may also be additional expenses, such as flights and donations in support of local community work on the ground.
But volunteering abroad—even with your entire family—doesn’t have to be a costly endeavour. In fact, it can be a surprisingly affordable family holiday, with some hosts offering room and board in exchange for the work performed in their homes or farms.
When Mitch Rhodes and his daughter Emily volunteered on a Habitat for Humanity Global Village volunteer abroad trip to Jordan, the most expensive part was the airfare from their home in North Carolina.
“Overall, the Habitat for Humanity trips are quite inexpensive,” says Rhodes. “We stayed in housing booked by in-country Habitat personnel and ate delicious meals prepared by local families.”
Families with teenagers 16 and older who can manage the physical labour of house construction can volunteer to build housing and provide stability to other families with Habitat for Humanity’s home building programs. (While as of publication Habitat’s Global Village program is suspended indefinitely due to the pandemic, many of Habitat’s local projects will resume, local conditions permitting, in 2022.)
“Anyone can be a productive member of a Habitat team,” notes Rhodes. “No training is required; volunteers are needed to do the physical work of building, but also to help with moving tools or supplies, setting up lunch and interacting with the local community.”
Preparing for a new cultural environment
It’s important to prepare all family members for the volunteer abroad experience. Depending on the destination and type of volunteer work you’ve chosen, the cultural and socio-economic differences can be overwhelming at first.
It may be beneficial to first try some local volunteer work to gauge family members’ skill set and interests and to address any issues that arise. Doing some research on the history and culture of your destination can help family members learn more about the country and its people. Approaching the experience from a position of empathy will teach both parents and children the value of service and mission. Volunteer placement organizations may also provide guidance and cultural training to prepare volunteers before departure.
“Habitat teams meet in advance to go over logistics, and when in-country, the host briefs the team on any cultural concerns regarding greetings, language and dress,” says Rhodes.
Volunteers are given a phrasebook with common sayings and greetings. Those efforts at communication lead to strong connections and intense bonds with the host community.
Rhodes notes that volunteering “allowed us to lower our social barriers and simply enjoy the act of helping, without judgment.”
While language fluency is often not a requisite for volunteer work, if your family speaks languages other than English, this can serve as both an opportunity to practice, and communicate more easily with locals in the community abroad. If you don’t speak the language, you can still learn a few key phrases by practicing with language apps like Duolingo, Babbel or Rosetta Stone.
Volunteering abroad presents an incredible opportunity for families to bond, appreciate cultural differences and serve other communities of families around the world.Add this article to your reading list