Volunteer Trips: Is Your Family Ready?

LIKE many affluent parents, Carolyn Everson, an executive at Facebook who lives in Montclair, N.J., with her husband and 9-year-old twins, is committed to raising “socially conscious” children, as she puts it. For that reason she did not hesitate to sign her family up for a trip to Kenya last August with Me to We, a company that offers what its Web site calls “transformative trips.” At a cost of $4,195 per person (excluding international airfare), guests spend 10 days immersed in African culture while participating in community development programs and living in “rustic, luxury cottages.”

In Kenya, Ms. Everson’s family carried jugs of water on their backs alongside tribal women, and helped build a school. They learned beading, planted trees and listened to lectures over leisurely dinners.

In Ms. Everson’s view, the trip was a success. “My daughters are growing up in a very privileged town,” she said. “This trip was a chance for us, as a family, to play a global role in helping others while also expanding our worldview.”

Travel — “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” in the words of Mark Twain — has long been a way to broaden one’s perspective. What is changing, at least for some parents, is the kind of trip that offers such broadening. A decade ago it was enough to peer into the Grand Canyon or bike through Tuscany. Now, galvanized by disasters like Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, and aware of the insulating effects of wealth, many parents are using travel to deliver to their children potent doses of real life.

Some parents, particularly those who are doctors or educators with a toehold in a foreign community, design family volunteer trips themselves. Others are signing on to organizations like Me to We, a partner company of the children’s rights charity Free the Children. And while it is hard to miss the incongruity in spending thousands of dollars to inoculate children against the scourge of privilege, traveling abroad costs money, period; for families with limited time and a desire to help, these organizations fill an obvious need. Me to We has seen family participation double over the last few years, while Globe Aware, which offers trips to 15 countries, had a 100 percent increase in the number of families signing up from 2003 to 2008. More recently, that number jumped 22 percent in the first half of 2012 compared with the same period last year. Chris Clum, executive director of Experience Mission, which arranges Christian mission trips around the world, estimates that 50 percent of the 3,000 to 4,000 volunteers who travel with his 10-year-old organization each year are now families.

Not surprisingly, the effects of children’s involvement in service travel are showing up in areas like education. “Everyone in admissions started seeing essays about these volunteering trips six or seven years ago,” said Bev Taylor, the founder of Ivy Coach, a New York-based college admissions counseling service. “Now we have to tell kids not to write about them.”

Though that is unlikely to dampen interest, keep in mind that such trips can be more complicated than the brochures suggest. Below are some common questions with answers collected from families who have taken such trips, and experts who are aware of the risks and rewards.

How to Prepare?

While exposure to different social and economic conditions may be the point of these trips, it’s hard to control just how intense the new experiences will be.

Frank and Camilla Baer will never forget their first days in Nairobi last August with their daughter, Elisa, then 16, and son, Oliver, 12. Before volunteering with Me to We, they took a tour through the city’s slums. “None of us had ever seen poverty like it,” Mr. Baer recalled. “We spent the morning walking through these dirt-covered streets, crowded with people living in shacks. It was a pretty serious thing for us to see on one of our first days there.”

Many of the families and volunteer leaders said that nothing can truly prepare someone unaccustomed to poverty for the deprivation common in the developing world. Still, there are steps one can take to mitigate the shock.

Before going, “discuss the challenges and explain that the trip could be heartbreaking at times, scary and even difficult,” said Ellen Sachs Alter, a psychologist who recently opened a practice after more than a decade with the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “Assure them that you will all confront it together.”

Being prepared for cultural tics helps, too, though for Heather Deyo, such knowledge didn’t soften any blows. Mrs. Deyo, whose childhood was spent in South Africa, returned with her four children in 2006 when her eldest was 12. “The children kept pointing out to me how happy the African kids seemed because they were all smiling,” she recalled. “As someone who had lived there I explained to them that smiling is a big part of their culture, but it didn’t mean they weren’t also hungry and dying.”

How Young Is Too Young?

“Parents are the only ones who can decide if their kids are ready for this type of travel,” said Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, president of the Child Mind Institute in New York. “But generally, I think during the teen years, a time when most kids are very self-absorbed, it is not a bad thing to take them out of their comfort zone.”

But as Kimberly Haley-Coleman, executive director of GlobeAware, points out, trips involving animals or playing with children are less of a cultural leap for families with young offspring. “Costa Rica, for example, is a great first service trip for a family,” she said. “You don’t need shots to go there, the people dress similarly, the food is not that different from ours, and the time zone is the same, making it much easier for smaller children to adapt.”

Kristy Clum, the wife of Chris Clum of Experience Mission, said she discourages parents from bringing children under 10. “I tell them you always have to be a mom first, and you will feel a tug of war about volunteering and not having a good experience if your child is unable to cope with discomfort.”

How Much Is Too Much?

“I draw the line at my kids seeing a dead body,” said Mrs. Deyo, who, since arriving in South Africa has established her own mission project on the Eastern Cape. “My son has sadly seen women dying of AIDS and the most intense poverty. I don’t want it to be about shock and awe, but this is a reality none of us should ignore.”

Still, it is a good idea to expect the unexpected, as things may go awry, and quickly.

Pam Spring-Feldeisen, who has assisted on medical missions in Peru and Haiti (though she is not a doctor), said things “got a bit dicey” on a recent trip to Haiti with her 18-year-old son, Thane. On the day they were leaving, their bus to the airport got trapped in a protest. “I could hear gun shots and was begging some of the other volunteers to promise to get my son out of there, no matter what happened to me,” she said, explaining that eventually they were allowed through the roadblock.

Her son remembers his mother’s fear. “It was the most scared she has ever been on any of our trips,” said Thane, who was also shaken by the event.

Neither Mrs. Deyo nor Mrs. Spring-Feldeisen were traveling with a volunteer tour group; both had organized their trips through religious partnerships. Genevieve Brown, executive director of the International Volunteer Programs Association, a consortium of nongovernment organizations, believes the level of danger is usually lower when you travel with one of their member organizations, as opposed to a mission or church group.

“Our nonprofit members must keep staff on the ground in the places where they operate,” she said. “They speak the language, know the culture and the political situation.”

Mrs. Deyo, however, emphasizes that her mission organization in South Africa now has four staff people there, which has made things much easier. Similarly, groups like Experience Mission say that while they don’t have dedicated staff members on the ground, they do partner with local organizations and churches, which provide inside knowledge of the area.

What Happens if You Get Sick Or Hurt?

In 2008, Kristen Smith, then 14, accompanied her mother, Dr. Lynn Million, a physician at Stanford, on a medical mission near Mombasa, Kenya. Despite taking the anti-malarial medication they needed before leaving, Kristen contracted the disease.

Luckily, Dr. Million had antibiotics and her daughter quickly recovered. The larger point is that there is no way to fully protect yourself while you’re traveling. So accept that, but also prepare. Visit your health care provider four to six weeks before your trip to find out which vaccines or medications you might need. Medical advice on 239 destinations is also available on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site (cdc.gov).

And be ready to avail yourself of local medical expertise. Ms. Everson, the mother of the twins, Taylor and Kennedy, had to drive more than two hours to a hospital in Kenya when one of her daughters fractured her wrist playing soccer. “We were tended to by a local doctor who had been trained in the States and received great medical care,” she recalled.

Should Service Trips Be Mixed With Pleasure?

Some families may want to augment their trip with time to relax. Instinct might dictate that this happen at the end of the trip, but many find that it’s smarter to schedule the easy part first.

Livia Bokor, 14, remembers how badly her family felt when they took a break from their two weeks at a Peruvian orphanage last year, which was organized by a nonprofit volunteer tour outfit called Global Volunteers. “We drove for hours through horrible poverty and then finally came to this five-star resort walled off from everything else,” she recalled. “It felt horrible to be there.”

Similarly, after a week helping out in a Haitian orphanage, Max Deyo, 16, remembered his discomfort when he and his fellow workers found themselves in a hotel eating a steak dinner right before their return home. “All I could think about were the kids we had left behind and how we should have skipped this meal and sent the money back to them.”

Ms. Everson said she arranged to go on a safari with her twins before their service. “I didn’t want our last memory of Kenya to be of a luxurious safari camp,” she said. “I wanted them to remember the kids they met in the villages, like the little girl who insisted on giving them her bead bracelet.”

Does the Experience Translate Back Home?

When they return, many students want to find a way to continue the work they were doing. Livia Bokor donated her bat mitzvah money to the orphanage in Peru ($15,000). Max Deyo has stopped adding to his comic book collection so he can send money to Haiti.

But recreating an extreme and exotic experience can be challenging. Not only are there time constraints, with academics and athletics often crowding out everything else, but volunteering in, say, a local soup kitchen is far less exciting than tutoring children in a bush schoolhouse.

“They have worked on tangible, recognizable projects, like building a school in Africa,” said Phil Kassen, director of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York. “It is hard to find something in our own city that is comparable.”

Nevertheless, without exception, all of the children interviewed spoke of the lasting impact their travels have had on them. Some wanted to pursue jobs in international public service; others were interested in emergency medicine. “Kids get such a bad rap for being selfish and spoiled these days,” Mrs. Deyo said. “But if you do something that helps shift their perspective, it is unbelievable how they rise to the occasion.”

And yes, there is room to question these trips. Mr. Kassen, for instance, wonders why there aren’t more similarly ambitious volunteer organization programs in the United States. “If we can’t help those around us and only those far away, I worry for our future,” he said.

But Ms. Brown of the International Volunteer Programs Association refutes this attitude. “There is a cynicism around international volunteering trips,” she said. “But truthfully, what we hear again and again is that the greatest impact is on the volunteers. It is a life-changing experience. We like to think that can only be a good thing.”

Lending A Hand

Me to We. Pricing for a Kenya program starts at $4,195 per person. Me to We’s standard itinerary is 11 days, door to door (including travel time). The price includes accommodation, meals and alcoholic drinks at its Bogani location, two safari game drives and transportation in-country, including round-trip airfare from Nairobi to the Masai Mara and ground transportation. Fifty percent of Me to We’s profits go to supporting programs run by Free the Children.

Global Volunteers. With programs in South and North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and the Pacific (Cook Islands), the standard fee for one week of volunteering ranges from $995 per person in Appalachia or on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana to $2,695 per person ($2,895 for two weeks) in Kunming, China (not including airfares). For each volunteer you bring with you on an international service program, the fee is discounted by $200 up to a maximum of $800 for four first-time volunteers. For United States travel the discount for four additional first-time volunteers is $100 up to a maximum of $400. Through comprehensive community development partnerships, this nonprofit engages short-term volunteers on long-term projects targeted at serving at-risk children.

GlobeAware. Weeklong programs run from as little as $1,140 per person in Laos to $1,390 for a week in Vietnam (not including international airfares). The price covers food and lodging in a modest hotel and several excursions to local sites. Volunteering opportunities include building schools in the Andes, repairing trails and roads in Nepal, and irrigation projects in Southeast Asia. Each program is designed to accomplish cultural awareness for the volunteers and sustainability for the community.

Voluntary Projects Overseas (voluntaryprojectsoverseas.org). Starting at £300 a week, or about $460 at $1.50 to the pound (£500 for two), volunteers for this Cambodia-based nonprofit spend time in the Atvea community, just outside the town of Siem Reap near the Unesco-designated World Heritage Site of the Angkor temples. The Cambodia volunteering project supports a free education program for children, a nursery, house building, medical support, vocational training, day centers, social work and nutrition programs, community support, sports and arts. The price includes airport pickup, daily transport to the project site and accommodation in a guesthouse.

Experience Mission. This Christian-based organization offers international volunteering trips as well as domestic to participants from all religious denominations. A week in the western Navajo Nation volunteering on community projects starts at $475 per person. Basic necessities, such as food, housing, major work project materials and a Kids Club curriculum, are included in the fee. Trips to Haiti start at $500 per person (high-school-age children only).


If you’re interested in Ivy Coach’s college counseling,
fill out our complimentary consultation form and we’ll be in touch.

Get Started