Vacations are a time to take a break from your daily routine and all its stresses. It's a time to reconnect with your friends and family; to explore new places and meet new people; to relax, recharge and re-enter your life more patient, calm and hopefully more sun-kissed. Many associate this type of rejuvenation with spa treatments, shopping trips or lounging by a pool. While these activities are certainly fun, there is another way, a personal favorite of mine, to recharge and reboot: voluntourism!
When you go on vacation your flight often takes you to a land of luxury, but when you volunteer, you land in a place of compassion, sacrifice and hope. With volunteering I discovered vacation experiences and memories that are more satisfying and longer-lasting. Tans fade, new beach memories blur together with old ones, but each volunteer experience is memorable, and every face you meet and story you hear is unique and unforgettable.
I first volunteered on vacation last June with Orphanage Outreach, an all-boys' orphanage in Jaibon, Dominican Republic. In a cement building with just a floor and roof and mosquito netting instead of walls, we read to the children, played games together, prepared meals and met other volunteers and organizers. I was worried about how a Type A personality like mine -- so accustomed to the everyday niceties that I often take for granted -- would react to being so far out of my element. But my normal clean-freak self quickly disappeared. I was instantly bitten by the volunteer bug. Looking into the children's eyes and feeling the warmth of their smiles was all my daughter and I needed to feel comfortable and at home. We swiftly adapted to our surroundings and, while they were not luxurious, they were certainly filled with love, laughter and support.
All of the amenities that I thought were important were soon forgotten. We enjoyed the outdoors, experienced new sights and sounds in the community and met extraordinary new people. Best yet, my daughter and I spent time together that neither one of us will soon forget. All in all, our voluntourism amounted to a vacation of a lifetime.
Where to Volunteer?
Check with your hotel and resort:
Many resorts, especially abroad, offer volunteer programs to their guests. Sandals resorts have a wonderful foundation where guests can explore volunteer opportunities. One of Sandals' most popular volunteer programs involves reading to local school children. I have heard wonderful things about the program from both the volunteers and the organizers, and I look forward to checking it out soon!
Seek out volunteer opportunities through your employer:
Many companies are getting more involved with volunteering. Your human resource department can serve as a wonderful source of information for different programs and charities. Some employers even offer incentives to help motivate their employees to take time to volunteer. With JetBlue, for every 25 hours an employee volunteers, JetBlue gives a free roundtrip ticket to the employee's charitable organization of choice. Check with your company to see what information and incentives they offer.
Community organizations and schools offer many volunteer opportunities as well:
Community organizations like your local religious center and school programs are a great source to learn about volunteer opportunities both locally and abroad. From building houses to medical mission trips to volunteering in a local classroom, your hometown is a great place to start your research.
Every little bit DOES help.
Don't feel overwhelmed by a huge time commitment. Just a few hours during your vacation or your life throughout the year can make a difference. A few weeks ago, on a recent family trip to Turks & Caicos, I dedicated a few hours of our trip to building a community playground. We were out in the sun, enjoying the fresh air and each other's company. It ended up being one of our favorite vacation moments!
Bring your kids!
Inject the volunteer bug into your children's lives by participating together as a family. Not only does it provide a great family bonding experience and memories to share, it is also a wonderful way to lead by example. Your shared service and sacrifice will teach your child an important life lesson and open his or her eyes to new experiences and places at a young age.
Don't worry about the amenities that you think you need!
Never been without electricity or running water? No worries! You will become a chameleon and quickly adapt to a new setting as long as you are willing to sacrifice a few creature comforts. I promise you. The compassion, hope and love you will gain during your experience will be more valuable to you in the end than a fluffy pillow.
Focus on what you can bring and don't worry about what you don't have.
Volunteering is one of the few things in life where you don't need a lot of resources or special skills to be a success. It's not about showing up with something; it's about showing up with the right attitude! Arrive with an openness and willingness to work hard, share love and joy and give of your time.
Most of us in the travel industry say that flying gets into your blood. Now, volunteering has worked its way into my blood too. Once you try it, you will find yourself wanting to do more. Want to give it a try or have more questions -- I am now tweeting! Follow me on Twitter @Wingwoman_Tracy to find out more. Can't wait to hear about your experiences and memories!