FROM ONE SISTER TO ANOTHER
Voluntourism is not a new travel niche despite the fact that many are not familiar with the concept. In essence, voluntourism is the act of doing volunteer work in the community where you're vacationing.
By no means is this an essay on the pros and cons of such work; rather, I'd like to discuss what's involved so that you can make an informed decision as to whether or not it's right for you.
WHERE CAN I VOLUNTEER?
Just about every state in the United States and every country in the world have volunteer opportunities. That doesn't necessarily translate into "voluntourism" opportunities. You can help with conservation and clean water projects, disaster response, work with animals, marine life and wildlife, and teach children in indigent communities. If you're a licensed healthcare practitioner, you can use your medical skills in communities where accessing healthcare is difficult. You can participate in faith-based programs around the world or even help with research in less developed countries. Honestly, I spent a lot of years wanting to be a "foster mother" for a baby monkey - until I realized they were going to strap the monkey to me for 6 weeks with no breaks. The point is this: no matter what type of volunteer project you want to do, you can generally do it while vacationing somewhere.
WHO CAN VOLUNTEER?
Adults and children can volunteer but most often, children 10-12 and under are not permitted due to safety issues. Very often, church groups will formulate a specific faith-based mission trip, or healthcare workers and organizations will create a medical mission. There are many opportunities that offer family-based programs so that multi-generational families can participate. Very often, mature adults choose this type of vacation and with their years of expertise, skills and knowledge in so many fields, they are invaluable to the communities in which they serve.
HOW MUCH TIME IS DEVOTED?
If your entire vacation is devoted to volunteering, then you're likely working 8-12 hours a day on behalf of the charity. If you're truly vacationing but want to give a little time, there are organizations that will arrange this for you depending on where you're going and what you'd like to do. It's important to remember that voluntourism is not about you and your convenience - it's about serving the needs of the community that you're in.
WAIT...IT'S NOT FREE?
Voluntourism is not free. In fact, if your entire vacation is based on volunteering, you may pay just as much as you would for a different type of vacation. This is because the charitable organizations do not have the financial resources to pay for your accommodations, food and other expenses. That is your contribution on top of your time and labors. Most people that I know who have "voluntoured", have raised at least part of the the money through friends, family and colleagues.
Remember that you are generally going to be in indigent communities where 5-star hotels don't exist. Don't expect fancy or upscale...you'll be lucky to find moderate conditions. You'll probably find yourself in a hostel-type bunk bed, lying on the floor in a sleeping bag, or in a basic bed with a monkey strapped to your chest (sorry - I had to!). Bathrooms are shared spaces and food is generally served through donations from the local community. That's not to say there are not luxury voluntourism opportunities - there are, but you'll have to look for them.
I can't tell you if voluntourism is right for you. And, since I have not vetted any of the agencies out there that specialize in this travel niche, I can't tell you which one is better than the next. What I can tell you is that if your generous heart wants to do something different on your next vacation and volunteering is in your blood, this may be a perfect option for you. Who knows? It could be the most rewarding thing you've ever done.
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