Volunteer vacations are called many things, you may see terms which generally mean the same thing, depending on the organization which uses the term, such as voluntourism, service vacations, international volunteering, volunteer travel, working vacations, gap year travel, volunteer travel, volunteering abroad.
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Never heard of volunteer vacations?
Does the idea of paying to volunteer strike you as odd? Don't worry, that's a common first reaction.
First, for more on why you pay for a volunteer vacation, click here.
Of course people have been volunteering for years, whether in their neighborhoods, their hometown, and even internationally. Super organizations have engaged in helpful missions to those in need for as long as history has been written. More recent, well-known examples: the Red Cross, since 1881, has organized volunteer relief efforts; Habitat for Humanity (building homes) and Doctors Without Borders (medical practitioners providing relief) have been in existence since the 1970s. And all of us are surrounded by terrific opportunities to give back to the communities in which we live, where our children go to school, and the churches we may support.
The history of the term "volunteer vacations" is hard to define as it is a relatively new term in the English lexicon. Many churches have conducted missions for both general help and for religious conversion. The American government recognized the positive effect on its own citizens and the world when it was created. According to this government organization, "the Peace Corps traces its roots and mission to 1960, when then Senator John F. Kennedy challenged students at the University of Michigan to serve their country in the cause of peace by living and working in developing countries. From that inspiration grew an agency of the federal government devoted to world peace and friendship."
Peace Corps volunteers, for example, commit a noble 27 months of their life to on-site experience. The median age of the typical Peace Corps volunteers is 25, 6% are over 50, 91% are single. So many good things have come from Peace Corps volunteers. Many Globe Aware volunteers are returned Peace Corps volunteers. It's hard to imagine the world of international volunteering without this organization that had enough foresight to institute a government supported international volunteer organization.
One concern has been the recent emergence of unscrupulous groups looking to profit from the growing interest in volunteering. There are organizations which may charge $3,000 for little more than an address, who provides no onsite support staff, who follow no government mandated rules about nonprofits and limits of compensation, who do not feel responsible for how funds are used. Others are merely "brokerage houses" which "sell" programs organized and led by others, only adding administrative costs to your experiences. Some are principally concerned with religious conversion. Still more give lip service to safety without any real thought as to what that means. Additionally, some are more adventure for-profit companies which are not subject to the same regulations regarding scrutiny of use of funds and hence are not rewarded with 501 c 3 tax deductible status. All of these factors are among those you should strongly consider before giving your valuable time to an experience volunteering abroad.
Post 911, the interest in volunteer vacations has surged dramatically. In the wake of other catastrophic events such as the Thailand tsunami and Katrina, many want to give back in a way that is more concrete that writing a check.
Volunteering overseas is, without a doubt, one of the top experiences anyone could hope to undertake in their lifetime. Even a short-term volunteer adventure can change your life and world perspective. Few things can give you a greater sense of meaning and a greater understanding of a culture.
One thing you should keep in mind, however, is that you are not likely to cure cancer or fully teach or learn a language in a short time. Just as significantly, you should keep in mind that manual labor is usually in great supply in developing countries, and it may be frowned upon if you participate in an activity which takes away from what would have been a paid job for a local. You are likely to walk away from your experience feeling like you received more than you gave. It is almost a universal reaction when giving your time with a reputable organization.
Whether you decide you want to volunteer your time in the United States restoring wilderness areas with the Sierra Club or American Hiking Society, or feel you're up for the adventure that comes with long-term international volunteering with the Peace Corps, or scientific research related programs such as Earthwatch offers, or even short term volunteer vacations with a group like Globe Aware, you are likely to feel more profoundly connected to this wonderful planet we live on. It can be a challenge, but it's almost always worth it. And if you've already done lots of traditional travel, particularly organized group travel, you owe it to yourself to try volunteer vacations as an alternative way to experience and, most importantly help the world.
Written by Dr. Ken Dorman, Board Member, Globe Aware
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Several books on volunteer vacations you may want to consider reading:
Volunteer Vacations - Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others
Ninth edition Bill McMillon (Author), Doug Cutchins (Author), Anne Geissinger (Author), Ed Asner (Foreword by)
How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas"
by Joseph Collins, Stefano Dezerega and Zahara Heckscher (Putnam Penguin 2002).