Make Your Next Vacation a Volunteering One

Instead of taking just any old trip, consider going somewhere you can make a difference.

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When 16-year-old Julia Lowther went on a family trip to Maasai Mara, Kenya, for March Break this year, she was expecting the kind of tour-led vacation where “a bunch of adults lecture us on history and stuff.”

Instead, Julia, her two younger sisters (ages 14 and 12) and parents Deb, 50, and Stuart, 54 – entrepreneurs who own a protein powder company based in Burlington, Ontario – found themselves on a very different holiday. They carried bricks, mixed cement and slapped it on walls to help build a community school. They also got a tour of a farm where the local high school girls grow fruit, vegetables and herbs for their school’s lunch program.

“These were students in my grade – people my age – showing us around,” says Julia, struck by the contrast between their lives and hers. “They were so proud of their school uniforms and what little they had.”

All-inclusive curated tours give tweens and teens an up-close view of the challenges faced by families around the world.

The Kenya trip – organized by Me to We, the travel arm of the WE Charity devoted to sustainable development – is just one of many family-friendly excursions to developing communities that Canadian parents are whisking their kids away on to teach them the importance of giving back and how to be responsible global citizens.

Voluntourism has been growing for many years, with the global volunteer travel sector estimated to be worth about $173 billion, according to Thrive Global. “Kids and teens understand the importance of giving back when they see those who are less fortunate first-hand,” says Toronto-based personal finance and travel expert Barry Choi.

Trips that make an impact

These all-inclusive curated tours give tweens and teens an up-close view of the challenges faced by families around the world, and showcase the tangible difference philanthropy can make in the lives of others. (For example, a drip irrigation system that WE helped implement on the Kenyan girls’ high school farm ensures there’s enough water for cultivation during times of drought.) But there are also enough of the comforts of home to make the trips doable for young families.

Accommodations are in private luxury tents or cottages with their own sinks, showers and toilets; and all meals, activities and guided day trips are provided (the Lowthers, for example, visited elephant-rescue and giraffe sanctuaries). Fees are on the high end – starting at US$4,795 per person for the 10-day Kenyan trip, not including flights – but 50 percent of the profits are donated to WE Charity for its sustainable-development projects.

Deb, Julia’s mother, says these trips do make a big impact. “My girls are at the age where some kids think it’s cool to skip class,” she says. “But in some places, it’s a privilege to go to school.” The message hit home so deeply with Julia, that in April she started her own fundraising campaign to raise $12,000 over the next three years to send Kenyan student Salome, currently in grade 9, to high school through a WE program. Two months into the campaign, she’s already raised $2,345.

Parents considering volunteer or educational tourism should try to find trips that kids can relate to on some level, suggests Deb. “I wanted to take my girls on safari, and liked the WE trip because it also had school visits, so I thought they could relate.”

In addition, be sure you’re working with a reputable organization, says Choi. “Take the time to find out how much money is actually going back to the communities.”

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