Anne Wallace Allen, a reporter with The Associated Press, considers the motivating factors that leads Americans to take volunteer vacations. Allen considers the life and professional experience of a number of volunteer vacationers and how these individuals want more out of a vacation - and life - than a standard day on the beach and an extended period of downtime. Allen also spoke with Globe Aware client Pam Solon who explains she selected Globe Aware "because it was nondenominational; offered destinations the family wanted; accommodated kids; and was the right price."
How to find the right volunteer vacation
By Anne Wallace Allen, For The Associated Press
Kathy Boisvert, who teaches preschoolers with special needs near her home in Massachusetts, had never been overseas before she signed up with World Teach, a nonprofit organization that matches volunteer teachers with overseas assignments.
Now Boisvert is spending her third summer at a tiny school in a small community an hour northeast of Cape Town, through World Teach. Volunteering at the school for children with disabilities gives her a way to travel and enriches her life when she gets back home.
"Going on a vacation is fun, but I'm not somebody who wants to sit; I won't lie on the beach," said Boisvert, of Uxbridge, Mass. "I like being busy."
Volunteer vacations are a way for travelers to see an area, especially in the developing world, and to get to know its people in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, for tourists. They also give travelers a way to help with problems they might not see in closer to home. And for kids, they provide some perspective, said Mark Solon of Boise, who is volunteering in Cambodia and Ghana this summer with his wife Pam and their two kids, ages 10 and 11.
"American kids need a better dose of perspective about how fortunate they are," said Solon. "Our job as parents is to produce two kids that contribute to society. So we think this is just part of their education."
Boisvert, who has a doctorate, teaches an extra class at the University of Massachusetts during the school year to pay for her airfare and lodging.
"It's really an investment," said Boisvert. "It has changed my point of view. In this community in South Africa they're doing the best they can with the little they have, so here, I think I can do so much more. The resources are here; it's not catastrophic like it was there."
Volunteer abroad programs can charge thousands of dollars a week for the privilege of helping out, not including airfare. The money goes to administration, lodging, food, and often to the community organizations that are working with the volunteers.
Fees charged by World Teach range from $1,000 to teach in Columbia or China, to almost $6,000 for Rwanda, Tanzania, or Namibia, including airfare. The organization offers year-long and summer-long programs.
"The airfare tends to be a very large percentage of the program cost," said Maki Park, the outreach director at World Teach.
With so many options for volunteering abroad, it's difficult to figure out which programs are legitimate — and which ones really do help people in the local communities they serve, for example — and which are just costly vacations with a veneer of volunteerism.
Boisvert chose World Teach because it's part of Harvard University's Center for International Development, a name that she trusted would ensure the program's legitimacy. She likes World Teach because volunteers can choose where they want to go based on their own interests. She also looked at the Peace Corps, which doesn't cost volunteers anything, but which requires a two-year commitment and sends the volunteer to a site chosen by the Peace Corps, not by the volunteer.
Pam Solon reviewed dozens of websites, talked to other families who had volunteered abroad, and read Volunteer Vacations: Short-Term Adventures That Will Benefit You and Others, by Bill McMillon, Doug Cutchins, Anne Geissinger and Ed Asner. She chose GlobeAware, globeaware.org, because it was nondenominational; offered destinations the family wanted; accommodated kids; and was the right price.
But there are many other online options for finding volunteer opportunities abroad.
VAOPS, which stands for Volunteer Abroad Opportunities —vaops.com— helps would-be volunteers find free and low-cost trips. Site founder Russell Gagnebin says he created the site after spending hours searching for a volunteer opportunity for himself and realizing that fees paid by volunteers don't always benefit the charities they work with. Many of the VAOPS listings are designed to connect volunteers directly with the charities, rather than having the trip organized by a middleman.
Gagnebin says that one of his favorite volunteer programs is The Light in Leadership Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Peru where volunteers can teach, help kids with their homework, and carry out building projects. Room and board is about $300 a month; information about contacting the group is on the VAOPS site along with many others.
The University of Minnesota Learning Abroad Center —umabroad.umn.edu— has a wealth of information for would-be volunteers, including a list of high-quality programs that UMN has worked with in the past. The site also offers sample questions that can help you learn if a program is legitimate and a good fit.
"Every program sounds wonderful, but if you talk to an actual past participant and ask the right questions you can get some meaningful answers," said Scott Daby, a program director at the Learning Abroad Center. "Ask how the project helped the community, how much money goes into the community, that kind of thing."
The International Volunteer Program Association at volunteerinternational.org also offers guidance on choosing the right program, including a list of best practices.