A holiday with heart

Shortly after the earthquake in Haiti, a friend’s Facebook status captured what many people were feeling when she wrote she “wishes she could do more for Haiti than just throw money at it.”

It’s not just recent events that tug at the heart strings. It’s hard to be inundated with images and videos of hardship and disaster around the world and not want to help in a meaningful way. To an increasing number of people, that means doing more than simply opening their wallets: it means packing their bags.

Volunteer tourism — or voluntourism, for short — is one travel trend that shows no signs of waning. It’s more than a way to immerse oneself in the local culture and experience the daily life of a place; it’s an opportunity to give back. For instance, travellers on a volunteer vacation might find themselves building homes for victims of natural disasters, providing education and medical assistance to children in an impoverished area or helping farmers in a Third World country upgrade their techniques.

Volunteer vacations aren’t just for students on a gap year getaway. There are hundreds of short- and long-term opportunities for people of all ages, including families, solo travellers and Zoomers. There’s room for a wide range of skills and abilities too, like health care, construction, environmental conservation and teaching. Some organizations such as Habitat for Humanity specialize in one particular type of volunteer work (like constructing new homes), while others like Global Volunteers offer a range of opportunities like teaching business skills to entrepreneurs in developing countries or working for women’s empowerment.

If you’re thinking about a volunteer vacation, here are some tips to help you plan:

Access your strengths. There’s no shortage of activities to choose from, but you’ll be able to contribute more to an organization or project where your skills are a good fit. For instance, if you enjoy working with your hands, consider helping to build a school or dig wells. If your strengths lean more towards reading and writing, volunteer to teach English instead.

Consider locations. There are a lot of choices as to where you can employ your skills, and it’s okay to consider your own interests as well. Are there other activities and sights nearby you’d like to see? Is there a culture you’d like to learn more about, or a cause in which you strongly believe? Can you speak the local language?

If your budget is tight, you don’t have to fly half way around the world to volunteer. Canada, the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean have programs as well.

Dig into the details. Part of the point is to get outside of your usual comfort zone, so expect to “rough it” a little. Are you comfortable staying in a local’s home, or sharing accommodations with other volunteers? Are you up for travelling by ground or sea? Evaluate opportunities carefully to make sure there aren’t any surprises.

Think about timing. It’s a knee-jerk reaction to want to fly to the scene of the latest disaster, but it’s no place for untrained workers. Leave it to the military and international relief organizations for the first few months at least. Once order and infrastructure are back in place, there will be many opportunities to help out in the months and years ahead.

Weigh the costs. Unfortunately, your time and effort aren’t the only price. You’ll most likely be paying for your own flights, accommodations, equipment, meals and other incidental expenses — not to mention the trip prep you’ll need before you go (like training or vaccinations). As with any vacation package, find out what costs are and are not covered, and do some comparison shopping.

Look into fundraising. Trips can run thousands of dollars, but there may be help covering the costs. Find out if there are any grants or fundraising opportunities to help out. Many companies offer suggestions and tips for fundraising to help volunteers finance their trip.

Consider health and safety. How safe is the location, and who is looking after health and security?

Reputable organizations should have solid emergency plans and a way to stay informed about changing circumstances. If you have any health concerns, make sure there are facilities nearby that can address them in an emergency. You’ll also want to make sure you have travel insurance that includes medical evacuation.

Unfortunately, women, people who are homosexual and people who are of certain religious or ethnic backgrounds face additional challenges when travelling in certain countries. It’s important to look into the laws and customs that can help keep you safe.

Check travel requirements. Make sure your paperwork is in order. Some countries require work or volunteer permits, and you may be required to show proof of vaccination for certain conditions like yellow fever.

Research the organization. Unfortunately, where there are people willing to do good there are scammers eager to take advantage of them. Fraudulent advertisements and offers have robbed would-be volunteers of their cash.

As with any kind of travel, it’s important to work with organizations you trust. Take the time to do a little background research to find out if the organization provides good training and preparation before you go, if they offer foreign language support, if their programs are sustainable and if they use their funds wisely. Be on the lookout for con artists and offers that sound a little too good. (For more tips on avoiding scams, see Vacation scams: What you need to know.)

Looking for some information and ideas? Here are a few good resources to get you started:
Cross-Cultural Solutions
Global Citizens for Change
Global Volunteers
Global Volunteer Network
International Volunteer Programs Association
Transitions Abroad: Volunteer Abroad
Travel with a Challenge
Volunteer Abroad.com

The Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada has a guide, Working Abroad: Unravelling the Maze, for people looking to work or volunteer abroad. There are also several guides available at your local library or bookstore.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Jiri Kabele

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