Voluntourism is one way to get away and make a difference

A volunteer vacation is the ultimate twofer. You do something to make the world a little better and also do something for yourself. It doesn’t get sweeter than that.

Overall, voluntourism is on the rise. A 2019 survey from Travelocity found that one in four U.S. travelers said they would volunteer on a trip that year and more than two-thirds said that they had volunteered on a previous vacation. Travelers said they were most likely to support humanitarian, animal welfare and environmental causes.

While the pandemic slowed travel of all sorts, interest in this kind of intentional travel is growing. “Since the world has started to open up, people are reassessing their impact while traveling,” says Jodi Bird in an email interview. She runs the Bountiful Blessings Travel blog and finds drop-in volunteer opportunities for travelers. “I put together itineraries that travelers can download,” she says. “All they have to do is sign up for their volunteer slot.”

George Balogh, owner of Blue Skies Travel in Albany, says pre-COVID he had many clients who would visit destinations on cruises and take excursions to visit an animal shelter, read books to children or volunteer in other ways. While Balogh says the pandemic has put some of these types of activities on pause, he expects that “interest will return as the locals on the islands gain confidence in the tourists being ‘healthy,’ or not having COVID.”

The idea behind voluntourism is for people to pair their passion with a project that will have an impact in the local community. Ideally they contribute skills they already have or find an opportunity that requires little training. Whether in the U.S. or abroad, extra hands are always appreciated within the conservation field, for construction projects, or in activities such as cleanup, using writing, design or IT skills at a local nongovernmental organization, or socializing shelter dogs to prepare them for adoption.

The opportunities are boundless. If you’re ready to do good on the go, here are a few ideas.

International Volunteer HQ

This company specializes in senior volunteer opportunities abroad. Options include teaching English, supporting construction projects and assisting in wildlife conservation projects. Fully hosted senior volunteer programs start at $180 for one week, with everything organized for you. Volunteers can choose from homestay and private room accommodation upgrades. Imagine being in Costa Rica, supporting local veterinary clinics and animal welfare organizations with hands-on care and companionship to abandoned dogs and cats, or being stateside in San Diego renovating homeless shelters, coordinating food outreach campaigns, or sorting and distributing donations. Learn more at https://www.volunteerhq.org.

Teaching English in classroom
Volunteer with International Volunteer HQ teaching English in Laos (photo ©International Volunteer HQ)


Panama City, Florida

Panama City is known for fishing. Its historic downtown includes the Martin Theatre, built in 1936 and one of best examples of Art Deco architecture in the U.S. It’s about an hour’s drive to hiking, natural springs, beaches, and Florida Caverns State Park with its underground natural stalagmites, flowstones, and draperies. But you can also participate in ReTreePC, Panama City’s initiative to reestablish the city’s tree canopy after Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 storm that ravaged the city in 2018, wiping out more than 80% of the city’s tree canopy. ReTreePC is on a mission to plant 100,000 trees in Panama City by 2025. If you want to assist them in reaching that goal, go to https://retreepc.com.

Grenada Tourism Authority Voluntourism

Grenada, Carriacou and Petite Martinique

Grenada recently launched a voluntourism program that offers numerous ways to contribute. At Myristic Mountain, for instance, tourists can help farm the crops, tend the horses, and plant more flora. The nonprofit Get Swimming Grenada offers free swimming lessons to children on the island who otherwise could not afford private lessons. Volunteers are needed to give swimming lessons to kids and adults. The Grand Anse Artificial Reef Project is a charity that addresses damage done by global warming. To combat the disappearance of reefs and sea life, Phil Saye at Dive Grenada oversees the building and placement of artificial reefs in marine protected areas where they are monitored and maintained. Voluntourists can participate in underwater cleanups, urchin and fish counts, help with ID tag placement and more. Get information at https://www.puregrenada.com/voluntourism.

Group of travelers with sea turtle
Volunteers with nesting leatherback sea turtle (photo: Jannie Koning/courtesy Ocean Spirits Inc.)

Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

Chincoteague, Virginia

Road Scholar, a not-for-profit provider of experiential learning programs, has a weeklong service-learning program for small groups of people aged 50+. You’ll spend time on the barrier islands of Chincoteague and Assateague, famous for their ponies. Work on projects from repairing and clearing woodland trails and walkways to cleaning up undeveloped beaches, preserving historic sites, or working among the local museum’s collection of artifacts and records. While you do good, you can enjoy the waterfowl and wildlife and learn about the islands from experts. Get details at https://www.roadscholar.org.

Great blue heron
Great blue heron at Chinco­teague National Wildlife Refuge (photo courtesy Road Scholar)

Sequoia Riverlands Trust

Visalia, California

If you’re headed to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in Visalia, consider lending a helping hand at one of the Sequoia Riverlands Trust properties. Volunteers of any age, ability and interest can learn from naturalists and help propagate native and drought-tolerant plants in the native plant nursery; do trail maintenance, restoration and stewardship projects; assist in trash clean-ups; and assist with environmental education presentations, among other opportunities. To find out more about how you can make a difference in this part of the San Joaquin Valley, go to https://sequoiariverlands.org.

Mckenzie Regenerative Travel Project

McKenzie River corridor, Oregon

Devastating fires in the McKenzie River area of Oregon’s Willamette National Forest in 2020 have left communities and natural public spaces in dire need of rebuilding. Global Family Travels, Cascade Volunteers and First Nature Tours work together to host weekend immersion trips that include education, service, and recreation. For example, in September, you can volunteer for 10-12 hours to help maintain mountain bike trails in the McKenzie Ranger District. You’ll stay in the wildfire-impacted communities of the McKenzie River corridor and meet with locals to hear their stories. The experience includes downtime for hiking, mountain biking and other activities. You can learn more about the McKenzie Regenerative Travel Project at https://cascadevols.org/mckenzie-regenerative-travel-project.

Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary

Ramah, New Mexico

Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in Ramah, New Mexico, offers multiday volunteer opportunities during the summer. The nonprofit, about two hours from Albuquerque, rescues wild wolves, wolfdogs, coyotes, foxes, and other animals. The sanctuary includes campgrounds where participants stay for free while they serve. If you don’t have a month or longer to volunteer, consider the Weekend Warrior Program, where your time will be spent landscaping, preparing meals for the rescues, building and maintenance work, campground cleanup and assisting the team with outreach events. For more details, visit https://wildspiritwolfsanctuary.org/how-to-help/volunteer/weekend-warrior-program.

Building and Organic Farming in Belize

San Ignacio, Belize

Kaya Responsible Travel has a volunteer project ideal for the entire family. It’s a farming and building project that benefits disadvantaged teenagers. The farm in Georgeville is a short bus ride from San Ignacio, where the volunteer house is located. During the week, volunteers can help construct outbuildings, using local resources and methods; assist in activities such as tilling and sandbag construction; and help with the building of waterless composting latrines and wood conservation stoves and ovens. In addition to learning about sustainability, participants may help develop the areas that house animals. Children can feed and take care of animals on-site. If children don’t want to build, they can assist with treehouse maintenance, paint signs for the property, learn organic farming techniques, collect eggs, and pick fruit, among other tasks. In Belize, it is law that orphaned children leave the system at 16. The farm is essential to the orphaned teens. Your work will help improve the living conditions there. For more information, visit https://www.kayavolunteer.com/project/family-volunteering-building-organic-farming-belize.

Main image: Participants in Birding Virginia’s Eastern Shore program on Chincoteague Island (photo by Brian Ezeike/courtesy Road Scholar).

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