Even if your grandchildren are too young to swing a hammer for Habitat for Humanity, there are plenty of volunteer vacations suitable for you to take together.
Before you start, it's important to consider the ages, special interests, and skills of your grandchildren to ensure they remain engaged. Are they really outdoorsy and like getting their hands dirty? Do they enjoy interacting with other children and trying new things? Do they have special talents in high tech, music, or the arts? Are animals their main interest? Having the kids help in an area where they already excel or are really keen to learn more will go a long way toward making your volunteer vacation a successful one. Here are a few options:
Whether you are planning a trip a few miles from home or across the country, look for volunteer opportunities while exploring this nation. To find a suitable project, visit Doing Good Together or VolunteerMatch; either allows you to search for opportunities by age, skill, interest, and location.
Utah's Best Friends Animal Sanctuary is a site where animal lovers can learn about helping out. Volunteers walk dogs, play with cats, clean runs and cages, and help socialize many types of abused and abandoned animals. Children of all ages will love it!
If you're planning a trip to the Grand Canyon, visit the Grand Canyon Wolf Recovery Project for information on educating tourists about the importance of reintroducing the wolf back into its natural habitat.
Maintaining and cleaning up America's landscape is a good option; even the smallest hands can pick up a can for recycling. Visit the American Hiking Society website for volunteer opportunities.
After hiking, mountain biking, four-wheeling, rafting, and horseback riding in Utah's Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, to learn about giving something back to the environment, contact The Solutions of Moab. Founder Sara Melnicoff welcomes all ages to help pick up trash and recyclables, paint over graffitti, decorate recyclable bins, or weed a community garden.
Invoking Empathy Abroad
Typically children, 10 years old and older, will benefit most from volunteer vacations abroad. At that age they will be able to see the world in a larger sense and physically help out in a hands-on way.
But for those traveling with grandchildren as young as a year old, Crooked Trails offers relaxed itineraries and special services. The non-profit educational travel company arranges for families to experience native cultures while assisting in projects like replanting mangrove swamps in Thailand damaged by the 2004 tsunami, or working on a community school project in a Maasai village in Kenya.
Visit the Organic Farms website's World Wide Opportunities to learn about sustainable farming from the ground up. Minimum age for WWOOFers varies by country (16 or 18), but some hosts will accept children. On New Zealand's Bay of Plenty, a former Montessori teacher runs a family farm and welcomes youngsters to help with chores like washing the pet pigs.
Older teens who are into sports may enjoy i-to-i's opportunities to coach soccer in the Caribbean, or visit Volunteer Abroad to find out about many programs to assist children with sports in developing countries
Today's wired-in grandchildren can put their gaming expertise to good use at a program to teach computer skills to children in Thailand. Other volunteer options for grandparents and grandchildren in Thailand include teaching English and computer skills at a preschool, a primary school, and a home for children with AIDS.
Global Citizens Network (GCN) sends volunteer teams to developing countries to do some good while immersing themselves in the culture and daily life of the community. Amy LeClaire-Sachs, Regional coordinator says, "Recently we've had a big influx of grandparents traveling with their grandchildren." Kids as young as 8 are welcome. Volunteers usually stay with host families. Kids pitch in as they are able, making new friends their own age.
Tom Davids, of San Carlos, Calif., took his 18-year-old grandson on a graduation trip to Peru to see the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu, and then to help build a school in a Quechua Indian village through GCN. Davids plans to take his other grandchildren on similar trips combining adventure and volunteer work when they graduate. He says, "These kids are essentially born with silver spoons in their mouths, haven't seen Third-World situations, so I thought it would be a good thing for the rest of their lives to get some experience with different countries and different cultures. They're beginning their education."
Concerns, Caveats, and Cautions
Lack of comfort, physical danger, crime, exposure to disease, even being caught in the crossfire of civil disputes — these are all real concerns. But they should not stop you from exploring volunteer vacations abroad with your grandchildren.
The key is to make arrangements through reputable tour companies, do your homework, be prepared for hardships (if any), and prepare your grandchildren, as well. Research your destination together and let them see photos of the people and places they will encounter, the kind of food they will eat, and the leisure activities that you all can enjoy when you need a break. Also, don’t take health concerns lightly. Visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to learn about health risks and vaccine requirements for more than 200 destinations to ensure you are all up to date.
Take it from Nancy Ward of Pine Plains, N.Y., who went on a Voluntour trip with her grandson, Jefferson. "The best part of going on the sea turtle project with Tropical Adventures was the quality time we got to spend together doing something meaningful. We loved everything about the trip, especially the leatherback turtles."
The rewards of teaching your grandchildren about giving back are immeasurable, and you will see how instinctively charitable children can be. They will no doubt inspire you with their insight and empathy.
Where To Start:
Volunteer Vacation Tours
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