Spring Break Voluntourism

Don't Just See the World -- Change It

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Photo by Han Nguyen. August 2009, at the home of Ernest and Warlette Smith.
Photo by Han Nguyen. August 2009, at the home of Ernest and Warlette Smith.

Many students, families and travelers are rethinking the criteria for a great spring break and eschewing the traditional idea of a vacation. Voluntourism is a hybrid holiday that combines volunteer work and travel in a short vacation. Organizations sponsor spring-break getaways that involve engaging in scientific research to protect the environment in exotic locations or rebuilding homes for the materially poor. In return for a few days of service, participants can immerse themselves in a new culture and experience a different slice of life, sometimes even working alongside community members.

An international volunteer vacation may cost as much as a week at the beach. If you're on a budget, domestic volunteer experiences that are closer to home tend to be less expensive. Almost all trips require volunteers to provide their own transportation to the volunteer site. Once there, many organizations provide lodging and meals. However, it's important to confirm what you're responsible for once you arrive as many nonprofit organizations operate on tight budgets and may require you to bring your own camping gear, food and even water.

Here are just a few of the organizations that are mobilizing volunteers and improving conditions around the world, one vacation at a time.

Student United Way Alternative Spring Break
For hordes of college kids around the country, spring break is a time for relaxing on the beach and partying at night. You won't find any bikinis or beach chairs in Biloxi, Mississippi, but Student United Way is confident students won't miss either on their Alternative Spring Break. During the national week-long event, individual students can team up with their peers to rebuild homes and communities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. United Way student groups can pair up with universities around the country to customize an alterative spring break exchange program.

America's Hiking Society Volunteer Vacations
Put a passion for hiking to work on a volunteer vacation in a national park or forest with America's Hiking Society. Intrepid trail stewards spend days weeding, building rock and log steps, landscaping and maintaining and beautifying these public spaces. Volunteers pack their own gear and prepare to rough it on moderate trips, staying in rustic cabin accommodations, drive-in camping or strenuous backcountry excursions that require backpacking 5-15 miles just to get to base camp. Participants range in age from 18 to 80, and special trips are available for families with younger kids and college students on spring break.

St. Bernard Project
New Orleans residents continue to work tirelessly to rebuild their homes and communities damaged by Hurricane Katrina. It takes the St. Bernard Project's Rebuilding Program 12 weeks and about $15,000 to completely rebuild a single home. Their clientele includes senior citizens, people with disabilities and displaced families. Volunteers can pitch in at any point in this rebuilding process and may find themselves hanging drywall in the early stages or painting trim at the end of a project. There's no fee to participate, but volunteers are expected to provide their own transportation, meals and housing.

Habitat for Humanity Global Village
Habitat for Humanity is known for its work creating affordable housing and combating homelessness around the world. Work alongside community members to build houses in the United States or abroad with Habitat's Global Village Work Trips. International trips are available in countries including Indonesia, Kenya, Romania and Guatemala, and can last anywhere from 9 to 14 days. International trips can cost anywhere from $1,200 to over $3,000 before airfare for this unique global learning experience. Trips in the US, from Alaska to South Carolina, are shorter and less expensive, making them a good pick for spring break.

i-to-i travel
The student-focused volunteer travel company i-to-i has sent more than 20,000 volunteers to the far corners of the world including remote spots in Africa, Asia, Australia and Latin America. This organization is particularly attractive to students because of the diverse experiences available. Volunteers can work with orphans in Ho Chi Minh City, aid efforts to protect wildlife in South Africa or build communities in Kenya. Spring breakers can inject a bit of play into their volunteer experience while saving sea turtles in Costa Rica and do a bit of surfing.

The Sierra Club
With tempting names, like Barrier Island Bliss: Service at Cayo Costa Island State Park, Florida and Santa Lucia Mountains and Sea, Ventana Wilderness Area, California, the Sierra Club's volunteer trips sound like true exotic getaways. Service trips bring volunteers to work in national parks and public lands throughout the US. Volunteers assist archaeologists, participate in wildlife and ecological research projects, and improve campsites in national parks for a small fee and a few days of work.

Global Citizens
Global Citizens creates custom cross-cultural expeditions where volunteers work alongside community members in countries throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. Trips may revolve around building a community center in a small Thai village, repairing a water drainage ditch in Nepal or renovating a school building in Tanzania. Based on the location and nature of the projects, many trips last up to 3 weeks making it difficult to mix with work or school commitments during spring break. However, the organization will customize a trip with a minimum of 6 people (families are welcome) and provide a guide and itinerary.

Earthwatch
Earthwatch creates a community of international volunteers with a common goal -- to save the environment, its biodiversity and endangered species. Volunteers join expeditions to restore coral reefs in the Indian Ocean off of the Seychelles or rescue leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica. With far-reaching destinations and unusual tasks, the trips sound glamorous, but these volunteer adventures involve serious work assisting scientists in field research. Many of these adventures are pricy, but can make for an unforgettable and educational spring break for individuals, friends and even families with children over age 10.

Discover how Travel Channel is helping the community through its Global Explorers Compass Program, which provides Washington, DC-area middle- and high-school students, who may not otherwise have the opportunity, a chance to experience the life-changing nature of travel.