Volunteer vacations offer adventures with a purpose
Last updated 4/21/2016 at Noon
Would you pay to volunteer on vacation? Many travelers are opting to do so, and are swapping sightseeing and lazing on a beach for service opportunities from making mud bricks in Kenya to building clay ovens in Peruvian villages.
Co-founder and Executive Director Chris Mackay of Crooked Trails, a nonprofit that pairs travelers with volunteer opportunities abroad, said “traveling with a purpose” has become a niche market in the tourism industry, and it’s gaining in popularity.
“You’ve probably already done the margarita on the beach,” Mackay said, “and maybe you’re looking for something more meaningful.”
Mackay presented “Volunteer Travel for Boomers” on Saturday, April 16, at the Creative Age Festival of Edmonds.
She said the relatively new field of “voluntourism” is taking hold, and there are over 900,000 volunteers in 90 countries worldwide.
Crooked Trails promotes community-based tourism, and its “aim is to create more environmentally and culturally sensitive travel opportunities that hold long-term sustainability for host communities.”
Mackay said voluntourism is a “superfast” growing segment of the industry, and while many organizations have intentions to do good work in other countries, some are missing the mark.
She has spent time in villages in Nepal, Peru and Africa getting to know the cultures and the needs of the communities.
“I don’t just build schools,” Mackay said. “I do what’s asked of me by the community. Sometimes organizations will create projects that may or may not be meaningful.”
She said some organizations use a top-down approach, but Crooked Trails provides volunteers with opportunities that will make significant, sustainable contributions in the communities they visit.
“Find out who designed the project,” Mackay said. “Did the organization say the community needs a well, or did the community say it needs a well?”
Depending on the destination, volunteers can participate in hands-on brick-and-mortar construction projects, teaching and coaching, contributing health services, environmental conservation and more.
Travelers to the Central Peruvian Andes have helped villagers build smokeless ovens to replace traditional open fire pits within homes. The pits were filling homes with smoke and contributing to health problems among the women and children of the village.
The project provides “better kitchens” with an adobe stove with a chimney to remove smoke. The stoves, or cocinas mejoradas, are efficient and use only twigs for cooking. They also provide more warmth, which is essential at an elevation of 13,000 feet.
“Through community-based tourism, you can make these kind of projects happen,” Mackay said.
In addition to the “work,” travelers also can expect to be immersed within the culture of the village they are visiting, and should be prepared for a possible homestay, preparing and eating traditional foods with the locals, language lesson exchanges, sharing in music and experiencing traditional dress.
“You’ll eat, sleep and poop like the locals,” Mackay said, laughing. “On these types of trips, I would ask you not to think about comfort. Comfort is overrated.”
Mackay said you can sit around in comfort and watch TV at home; she wants travelers to “fully engage” in the experience of a voluntourism trip.
For more information and trip details, visit CrookedTrails.org.
Want to volunteer on vacation?
Use these tips from Crooked Trails to help you find the right organization:
How many years has the organization been in business?
How well established are they?
Does the organization provide in-country support that includes an orientation and airport pick-up?
Does the organization provide pre-departure briefing?
Is travel/health insurance provided as part of the placement fee?
What kind of emergency support system does the organization have?
What kind of living situation will I be in?
How many hours will I be expected to work?
Will I be free to spend some time exploring?
Will there be other volunteers?
Does the volunteer organization provide guidance on how to get the appropriate visas and inoculations for a specific country?