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Service Vacations Can Be an Educational and Character-Building Experience for Teens and Tweens

Add “community service” to reading, writing and arithmetic. It’s one of the requirements that many high schoolers must fulfill in order to get their diploma. But even those young people who don’t have to prove they’ve done good to graduate are finding that they want to have more meaningful vacations. And this has led to an explosion in the number of “service vacations” that are being offered to both teens and tweens. I recently sat down with Scott von Eschen, of Adventures Cross Country (, to discuss the growing trend and how parents can ensure that their children are getting a worthwhile—and safe—experience when they book these sorts of tours.

Pauline Frommer: How would you define a service vacation?

Scott von Eschen: Essentially a service vacation lasts anywhere from two to five weeks, and the students will go anywhere from New Orleans to Cambodia. Typically, they’ll travel in a small group, between 12 and 15 kids, and they’ll do some sort of service project. It might be installing water filters in remote villages or teaching English. Typically programs will have a travel element, so your child might go to Angkor Wat or to the coast, but the primary focus will be the service element.

Frommer: How do you know the company is legit? There’s been talk in recent years of volunteer organizations that run programs that the community involved didn’t ask for. And cases in which the money that people pay into the program would be more helpful than the work done. How do you vet which service programs are worthwhile?

von Eschen: There’s a narrative out there that says exactly that. So you want to go with a company that carefully vets its programs.  Most of our programs are in the summer months so we spend the rest of the year sending people all over the world to look at projects where can we make an impact for the local community and on the students who are participating. We’re trying to create global citizens on our side.

Frommer: You talk about global citizens. Do the kids who take your programs do them out of pure altruism or are they trying to pad their college resumes? Or is there some other motivation?

von Eschen: Well, that’s a perceptive comment. There certainly are situations where the kids need 40 or 50 community service hours for high school graduation, or where they want to get material for a great college essay. But I give the kids more credit. I find that most of them are really there for the right reasons--and it doesn’t help that they’re going to these amazing places! In addition, when we get them there, they’re so inspired by the important things they’re doing that even if they originally went for the wrong reason they come away with the right lessons. They realize that there are issues around the world that they can make a difference about.

Frommer: How can a parent be sure they’re picking the right program?

von Eschen: That can be tricky as its really easy in our industry to come up with a beautiful catalogue with shiny pictures and a nice website for a program that doesn’t have much substance.  So I’d say look at three different things: look at the organization, then look at the people (which means who’s taking the kids and who are the other students on the program) and finally look at the projects.

In terms of the organizations some things are obvious. You want to find out what’s the safety record of the program. How long have they been in existence? What kinds of training do they give their staff beforehand? What’s a little more subtle, that people outside the industry aren’t aware of, is that there are some organizations that basically package up a group of kids, put a couple group leaders in charge and tell them they’re in charge of all the logistics once they get there. So the trip leaders are in over their heads trying to figure out how to move a group of 15 students around a country--it doesn’t work very well. There are other organizations who make all those plans in advance.

Frommer: Well, how would an outsider be able to tell a “pre-planning” company from what that’s more disorganized?

von Eschen:  I think one way to do that is to ask that question. Some companies are proud of the fact that they can “be flexible”. Frankly, I don’t think those tours work well. You can also check references. Talk to the families who have done these programs. Families are really great about telling you what did and didn’t go well. And a reputable company will be able to give you plenty of names, so ask for 10 or 15 references.

Frommer: You said that it’s also key to look at who the other kids on the tour will be. Why is that important?

von Eschen: First question I would ask is what’s the ages of those taking the trip and how will the group be broken up. The group dynamic of a program like this is so important, so you don’t want is a program that’s going to put seventh graders and twelfth graders in the same group. Find a program with a really tight age group. And find out if the kids are going to be altogether at the same time, or are you going to have some kids going in and some kids coming out over the course of your child’s trip. That obviously breaks up the group dynamic.

Frommer: If your child does decide to take this sorts of vacation, what are some of the practical issues you should take care of before they leave?

von Eschen: There are a number of them. Be sure to register your child’s itinerary with the U.S. State Department’s “Step Program”.  This alerts the local U.S. Embassy to the in-country presence of your child in the event of emergency. Open up a bank account attached to an ATM or sign up for a pre-paid debit card (such as Visa Buxx) that can be used internationally.  ATM machines are almost everywhere these days and provide a safe and easy way to exchange U.S. dollars into local currency. Also pack separately a small amount of emergency cash at the bottom of your main luggage “just in case”. Tell the kids to leave expensive or coveted items at home as its important they blend in and don’t become a target for thieves. Also in terms of blending in, encourage culturally sensitive and appropriate dress. For example, short shorts and tank tops don’t travel well in most developing countries.

I am extremely proud of the lasting impact that ARCC students have had on people, on communities and on the environment around the world. Many of their travel experiences are life-changing as students learn to be contributing members of our global community.