Those who say that "it is better to give than to receive" may well be right when it comes to the personal satisfaction you will get from giving of your time and services during a volunteer vacation. Not only do you gain the invaluable experience of travel, but more often than not you are immersed in a local culture, meeting local people and sharing their lives. At the end of the stay, your greatest reward will be to know that you have made a difference in the lives of others (and they in yours), contributed to their community and helped sustain their development.
Immersing yourself in an international volunteer program means a serious commitment, so you'll need to consider factors such as your time constraints, your skills and what level of dedication you're willing to offer.
Although there are costs associated with participating in most organized volunteer programs, as an added incentive all additional fees, including your transportation, accommodation and meals, are generally tax-deductible for U.S. taxpayers. Cultural activities, excursions and fieldtrips may also be considered as a deduction. Before planning your volunteer vacation, do your research as there are a number of organizations with different agendas and missions, from religious and social justice to educational and environmental, so it is best to find one that fulfills your desired outcomes and matches your personal views. Here are a few options to consider:
The Action Without Borders' Ideas List (www.idealist.org) is a membership website that provides details about volunteering opportunities throughout the world. There are 51,000 nonprofit and community organizations in 165 countries listed, and you can search or browse by name, location or mission. Membership is free and you can choose to receive personal e-mail updates of options that suit your requirements or even post a volunteer profile so appropriate organizations can find you. There are links to volunteer programs abroad and family volunteering ideas. Depending on the particular project, ideally, volunteers are encouraged to stay for a minimum of two to four weeks. A few examples include:
- Ecotourism development projects in Laos and Thailand with Open Minds Projects (www.openmindprojects.org) -- one month stay
- YMCA International's (www.ymcanyc.org) Camp Abroad Australia youth program -- minimum two month commitment
- Greenforce's (www.greenforce.org) Reef Protection plan in Fiji with diving field work required and training provided -- no specified minimum time
- Sea Turtle conservation program in San Miguel, Costa Rica from Pretoma (www.tortugamarina.org) -- two weeks required
For the environmentally and socially conscious traveler, Earthwatch (tel. 800/776-188; www.earthwatch.org) volunteer expeditions allow you to select a project by month, geographic location or scientific field of study. These fields include archaeology, biodiversity, conservation, cultural diversity, endangered ecosystems, global change, oceans and world health. A one-week minimum time commitment is required.
There are 130-plus expeditions on offer in 47 countries worldwide, so chances are there will be a program that suits your needs and interests. Earthwatch offers its members up to a 10% discount on all program fees, and students who are members receive a 20% discount. Airfare is always additional. Having worked with Earthwatch volunteers several years ago on a palaeontology dig looking for dinosaur remains in Australia, I have witnessed firsthand the level of commitment, dedication and passion these volunteers have.
Join their "Mexican Megafauna" palaeontology dig in June and July 2006 and unearth fossil histories of animals to discover the effects of global climate changes on evolution. The dig is located in San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, in Central Mexico and the $1,095 cost covers a seven-day expedition with six-nights' twin share accommodations at Hotel Sakkarah, just outside San Miguel City, continental breakfast and homemade Mexican dinners at the hotel, lunches and snacks at the field site daily. Program commencement dates are June 25 and July 2, 16 & 23, 2006.
Or how about scuba diving World War II wrecks in Micronesia? The Truk Lagoon on Weno Island was an Imperial Japanese Navy base during the war, and more than 50 naval and merchant ships were sunk in an intense aerial bombing campaign by the U.S. in 1944. These in conjunction with the remains of up to 100 aircraft, have created an artificial barrier reef attracting a vast array of colorful and diverse marine life. The expedition is to observe and record information on the lagoon's archaeology and the corrosion and decay rates of the wrecks. You must be scuba-certified to participate and additional training will be included. The program is 13-days long and costs $2495, which includes accommodation in studio apartments for the duration without meals. Dates are July 3 & 17 or November 13 $ 27, 2006.
Global Volunteers (tel. 800/487-1074; www.globalvolunteers.org) offers a huge selection of volunteer vacations and their expansive network covers volunteer opportunities in 20 countries on six continents with projects including village construction, childcare teaching, environment, healthcare, and legal services.
Visit Tanzania and work on village development projects including teaching, building classrooms, and supplying school materials. Help improve impoverished Tanzanian children's potential in this nationally recognized educational program. Your host village is located near Iringa, and you will be accommodated in community buildings in dormitory-style lodging. Meals are prepared for you by local people and all water is purified for drinking. Base-priced at $2,385 ($2,285 for previous volunteers or $2,185 for students), the three-week programs are available each month throughout the year (with the exception of December) in 2006.
Work with orphaned children in India and be rewarded by smiles and love. Volunteers are needed to play games with the kids, help them with their studies, teach music, dance and art. Teach conversational English or other subjects in the community school or help with construction, painting, cleaning, repair or gardening in the orphanage. You will be based in Porur village, a half-hour drive from Chennai and lodging is double- occupancy in a comfortable guesthouse. A local Indian cook will prepare team meals of authentic mainly vegetarian regional cuisine and occasionally the team eats at nearby restaurants. A three-week program is priced at $2,295 -- $2,145 for previous volunteers or $2,095 for students. Program dates begin on February 18, March 18, June 10, July 1 & 29, September 16, October 14 and November 4.
Teach English and literacy in Ukraine. Based in the city of Zaporozhye, volunteers stay at the three-star Hotel Ukraine and most meals will be eaten as a team at the hotel restaurant. Programs are three-weeks long and are scheduled for April 1, May 13, and September 2 & 30, 2006. This volunteer opportunity is priced at $2,495, $2,395 for previous volunteers or $2,295 for students.
Save $100 by applying and processing all your volunteer materials online. With all Global Volunteers programs, fees support the community's on-going development program as well as your meals, lodging, transportation to and from the work site, project expenses, emergency medical evacuation insurance, administrative costs, and the services of a trained team leader. The service program fee does not cover free-time expenses, or your airfare or other travel to the host community. All fees, including airfare, are tax-deductible for U.S. taxpayers. You must depart from the U.S. at least two days prior to the commencement of the program abroad.
Habitat for Humanity's (tel. 229/924-6935, ext. 2549; www.habitat.org) Global Village program is a meaningful way to contribute through volunteerism, with the construction of new and temporary homes and communal buildings in deserving communities. Programs vary in length from seven to 20 days depending on location and examples include:
Kyrgyzstan (August 16 to 30, 2006): Based in the town of Bishlek, help the local communities build new buildings and renovate existing properties, doing whatever is necessary to improve living conditions for the inhabitants. The team will stay in small apartments, sharing a bedroom and bathroom with other team members. Meals will be modest with breakfast in the apartments, lunch on site, and dinners in local restaurants. Cost of the trip is approximately $1450 which includes lodging, food, transportation in Kyrgyzstan, traveler's medical insurance, orientation materials, and a donation to the local HFH affiliate. Participants will need to arrange and pay for their own flight to Kyrgyzstan and visa.
Nicaragua (July 8 to 23, 2006): The next Global Village trip to Nicaragua is 15 days in length and includes eight to 10 days of building and local cultural activities in the host community and two or three days of R&R. Depending on the destination, activities for teams may include hiking in the rain forest, beach visits, climbing a volcano, coffee plantations or shopping. Team members stay in simple hotels or a retreat center with shared rooms and baths. In most cases, breakfast and dinner is provided in the hotel and lunch is prepared by community members and taken on site. Nicaragua trips cost approximately $1,100 to $1,200, plus airfare and this price includes lodging, food, ground transportation, cultural tours, traveler's medical insurance, orientation materials and a donation to Habitat Nicaragua.
Madagascar (March 19 to April 8, 2006): There are three HFH programs to Madagascar this year (March, May and July) constructing houses made of cooked clay bricks, cement floors and iron roof sheets. Windows and doors are made of eucalyptus that is found locally. So far HFH had constructed over 140 houses in this, one of the world's poorest countries. Teams usually stay with the Habitat families enabling volunteers to experience the warmness of the Malagasy culture. Breakfast and dinner is provided by the host families and lunch is usually provided on site by the homeowner. Trips to Madagascar cost approximately $1,600. This price includes lodging, food, ground transportation, cultural tours, traveler's medical insurance, orientation materials and a donation to Habitat Madagascar. Airfare costs are estimated to be around $1,600 from New York to Antananarivo.