Family Volunteer Vacations: More Than a Change of Scenery

Lisa Novick
June 8, 2010

With summer around the corner, many families are planning their vacations.  While the beach, National Parks, or big city excursions can all be memorable trips, how about considering a different kind of get-away that can make a world of difference?  A family volunteer vacation!  There are a wide range of opportunities.  You can find experiences that are in the United States or in foreign countries; those that last one week or run as long as 12 weeks; and trips that welcome children of varying ages and support a wide range of issues. 

Where to Start?

First, it is important to get a general sense of how family volunteer vacations work. You can start your research via reputable websites such as  This site offers great family information on everything from working together on a local community service project for a few hours to taking a trip with volunteerism as the focus!  Here are some more important steps to take before moving forward:

  • Have a family discussion: Talk about what issue or cause is most important to your family. Are you and your kids interested in children's issues; education; healthcare; the environment; the elderly; people with disabilities; rebuilding or rehabilitating housing; or preserving historic sites, National Parks, or wild lands? You can structure your volunteer vacation in a way that supports any of these topics.
  • Take a family assessment: Take a honest look at your own family's needs and "personality." Are you culturally sensitive? Are you open to new experiences? Are you flexible? Are you willing to work hard and share your energy and talent? Are you open to going outside your normal routine or comfort zone? You do not have to answer positively to all these questions. However, if you answer some of these questions in the negative, it is important to structure your experience in a way that matches your family's outlook.
  • Consider location: Does your family prefer to stay close to home or experience a different country and culture? Would your family get excited about constructing homes in Cameroon, Africa with Habitat for Humanity? Is cleaning up the coastline in Georgia with Volunteers for Peace more your speed? How about reconstructing an historic center in Armenia through Adventures in Preservation? Many of these trips also build in time for you to experience the culture, history, and significant attractions of your destination.
  • Identify your timeframe: When is your family interested in traveling and for what length of time? Many trips are available year-round. However, some may require that you attend a time- and location-specific training session (particularly if you are 18 and older and interested in being a "lead volunteer" for a particular project).
  • Lay out the costs: Families are responsible for absorbing the trip costs such as airfare, lodging, and food. Many organizations have a set fee structure that includes a donation to host community's program, in-country transportation, food, accommodations, and travel medical insurance. Other groups may require you to make your own arrangements for lodging. Base costs for some trips can start as low as $200 per person and a run as high as several thousand dollars. It can depend a great deal on how far you are traveling.
  • Understand the conditions: Investigate the details of the project itself. What are the work conditions like? What safety precautions are in place? Are there health, food, or weather concerns? Confirm the age and fitness requirements for the project. Not all excursions are suited for young children or adults with certain health limitations. Finally, work with an organization that makes safety a priority. For example, Global Volunteers has in place a "Safety Trumps Everything" policy that sheds light on situations to be mindful of and what measures are in place to address them. Very important stuff!

Once you have looked into all these areas, you will be equipped to hone in on a cause and a destination that are meaningful and appropriate for your family.

Why Do It?

The rewards for taking a family volunteer vacation go beyond the obvious yet important reason of helping people or communities in need.  Numerous experts have pointed to the following positives for parents and kids alike: 

  • Creating a family bonding experience;
  • Developing greater confidence and new skills;
  • Learning about the needs, history, or daily routines of a local or foreign community;
  • Meeting people from different cultures or backgrounds;
  • Experiencing compassion, empathy, tolerance, and sacrifice;
  • Meeting other families who are also volunteering with a similar mindset; and
  • Making new friends and having fun while doing good.

If you are interested in reading more about the benefits of family volunteering, consider purchasing The Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering, by Jenny Friedman, or Susan Crites Prices's The Giving Family:  Raising Our Children to Help Others.  You can also check out "Community Service: A Family's Guide to Getting Involved," a free resource found on

There is no question that taking a volunteer vacation requires an investment of time, energy, money, and even an adventurous spirit.   And while there is absolutely nothing wrong with taking a vacation with the sole purpose of getting a change of atmosphere, rejuvenating your mind, body, or spirit, or spending more quality time with the family -- there is something to be said for a family trip that gives you a chance to change the world and discover changes in yourself at the same time!

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

    Hi Jane, So nice to hear the piece was helpful. Please visit our website for loads of ways to engage your kids in volunteer experiences. And don't hesitate to share any ideas you have. We would enjoy posting them, too! Best, Lisa;

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    Hi Lisa, I love this article! I speak, teach and write about volunteer vacations and am always looking for opportunities and resources for clients with families and young children. While I knew about the book "Busy Family's Guide to Volunteering" by Jenny Friedman, I loved your other links and suggestions. Please keep me posted on other ideas for families, especially those with children under 6 on how they can help their children learn about the fun and excitement of a volunteer experience at home or abroad! Travel in Safety. Jane Stanfield Where Is She Heading

    over a year ago


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