It was on a family vacation in Maui that Claire Newell’s outlook on travel began to change.
During an evening at the beach with her husband, seven-year-old son and nine-year-old daughter, Newell was struck by a particularly beautiful sunset, and remarked to her kids how lucky they were to be able to enjoy such a sight.
“My son innocently said, ‘but we’ve seen this lots – in Costa Rica, in Puerto Vallarta…,’” Newell recalls, admitting that, with her career as a travel consultant, her family does go on more trips than most.
Her son’s comment made her think about how she could make travel a more fulfilling experience for her children, and make them understand how privileged their family is.
“I found it hard to sleep that night.”
For the family’s next trip, to Jamaica, Newell got in touch with the country’s tourism authority and asked for recommendations for a place the family could spend some of their time volunteering.
“It was simple to do,” she says. “They sent us a list of about 25 places, and we decided an orphanage would be the best for us.”
After a few weeks of getting ready before they left for Jamaica – buying toys and other supplies for the orphans and explaining to her kids what they’d be doing so they would be prepared – the family embarked on their first voluntourism experience.
They spent 12 hours over two days at Robin’s Nest Children’s Home, helping out with laundry, building a chicken coop and playing with the dozens of children who lived there.
The experience, Newell says, changed her family forever.
“It was the most memorable part of our vacation,” she says. “Nothing impacted my kids more than the hands-on giving.”
While Newell’s volunteer experience abroad was incorporated into a pre-planned stay at a resort, there are many organizations that arrange travel will the sole purpose of lending a helping hand to those in need.
In late June of this year, Vancouver resident Amrit Maharaj travelled to Costa Rica, where he spent two weeks with an organization called i to i Volunteer and Adventure Travel.
With a background as a builder for a real estate development company, Maharaj was drawn to the work the group was doing in the small town outside of San Jose, building modest, 20 by 20-foot single-family homes for low-income families.
Not only was providing shelter for Costa Ricans rewarding, but Maharaj, 30, was also touched by how the families reacted to the tiny homes they were building.
“These people are amazing,” he said. “What we have up here, we take for granted. They’re so grateful that we’re providing that little bit of comfort that we think is substandard here.”
While in Costa Rica, Maharaj and another volunteer lived with a home-stay family and worked around eight hours per day, Monday to Friday. With weekends and evenings free, the volunteers were able to get out and explore, go hiking and white water rafting.
While Maharaj describes the organization he volunteered with as “very well organized,” he notes it’s important for travellers to do their research ahead of time, and make sure the group they’re volunteering for is legitimate and well established.
Katie Carlson, a 26-year-old Langley native now living in Vancouver, agrees plenty of research is needed ahead of time to ensure your experience will be what you hope for. Carlson and a friend spent more than two months travelling in Southeast Asia last summer, and spent a month of that time volunteering at a school in Indonesia.
“Most of our work centred around helping kids to learn English, but we taught basic math and basic computer skills as well,” the masters student says.
While her overall experience was a memorable one, Carlson says she witnessed a fair amount of disorganization within the group she was volunteering for.
“When you think of an international volunteer organization, a lot of people wouldn’t assume that they’re fraught with as much politics,” she explains.
“That can really affect your experience, really cripple the work you’re trying to do.”
Despite her frustrations, Carlson says her time spent volunteering was inspiring and that she would definitely do it again.
“The aspect of combining travel and tourism with volunteer work, you actually get way more involved with a local community when you’re volunteering,” she says. “My most cherished memories come from my time volunteering. You get a sense of what a country is all about when you stand still for a minute.”
For Newell, who says she plans to include a volunteer component on every trip she and her family take from now on, giving back can be something as simple as spending an afternoon cleaning up a park or beach.
“It’s much easier than people think,” Newell says. “I would even encourage a group of guys on a stag down in Vegas – still do what you would normally do, but maybe book four hours to work in a soup kitchen. I’ll bet you that’s the thing they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
Maharaj also admits to be bitten by the “voluntourism bug,” and is already anxiously awaiting his next trip.
“I can’t imagine travelling and not (volunteering) at the same time,” he says. “It’s so much fun, and so rewarding.”
And for anyone considering voluntourism, he offers this advice:
“Do it. Don’t hesitate,” he says.
“I put it off for a long time, and after I did it, I thought, ‘that was something I shouldn’t have put off.’”