It’s not yet 9:30 a.m. and I’ve already been lugging 20-kilogram bags of soil for an hour. My back and shoulders are starting to throb, I have half-moons of dirt caked under my fingernails and my T-shirt and shorts are drenched in the 40-degree heat.
Just a couple of kilometres away, tourists are relaxing in the sand and splashing around in the Red Sea. But there will be no beach for me today; I’m spending my day with fellow volunteers in the garden of a subsidized nursing home in Eilat, Israel. Our jobs aren’t major (after we get the soil back in shape, there’s planting to do), but the impact of the work is noteworthy: transforming a scrubby patch of yard into an outdoor retreat that the home’s residents can enjoy.
For me, this day spent in the garden also offers something more lasting than my typical vacation afterglow. The sweat equity I put in, along with the opportunity to work alongside a group of like-minded people and to see first-hand the residents’ reactions to our work, brings a sense of fulfilment and leaves me with vivid memories I still cherish.
Voluntourism—volunteering meets tourism—experiences like mine are increasingly in demand as travellers seek out opportunities to form deeper connections with the people and places they encounter on their journeys. “The surprising thing is how many programs you can participate in, how relatively easy it is to find them and how personalized you can make this experience,” says Aaron Smith, founder of Holidays for Humanity, a Vancouver-based company that matches travellers with voluntouring and purpose-based experiences around the world.
From afternoon-long excursions for the whole family to longer, more immersive experiences that require specific skills, there are opportunities to fit all interests and time commitments. Following are eight ideas for giving back on your next trip, whether you’re looking to volunteer for a couple of hours, a couple of days or a couple of weeks.
Whether it’s handing out Christmas gifts to underprivileged kids at a community centre on the outskirts of Cancun or helping young leukemia patients celebrate Children’s Day (an annual Mexican holiday), guests of the Grand Residences Riviera Cancun and other Royal Resorts properties can bring smiles to the faces of young locals. Organized through the Royal Resorts Foundation, the Spreading Happiness program facilitates visits several times each year with some of Cancun’s neediest young residents. There’s no cost for these three- to four-hour excursions, though participants are asked to bring along a small toy, art supplies or candies to hand out.
Curaçao’s coral reefs are considered some of the best in the world for spotting rainbows of tropical fish while snorkelling or diving. But those colourful reefs are at risk from lionfish, carnivorous sea animals that not only feed on the reef, but also on the small native crustaceans and fish that are essential to its maintenance. Each summer, the marine conservation group REEF (Reef Environmental Education Foundation) offers a weeklong opportunity for divers to learn about lionfish from marine biology experts and to assist in the removal of lionfish from area reefs. With five days of boat dives and unlimited shore dives, there’s ample time for enjoying the water, too. Rates from US$1,882.
Founded in 2000, Live Different (a WestJet partner) started its Builds program with a trip to the Dominican Republic in 2005 to help build a few houses. Since then, thousands of Canadian volunteers have worked alongside local families, labourers and tradespeople building homes, medical clinics and schools in places like Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and Baja California Sur, Mexico. From working up a sweat on the building site to getting your butt kicked keeping the kids busy on the soccer field, spending 10 days on a Live Different build is a chance to make a difference while learning new skills, making new friends and diving into the local culture. Rates from $1,500.
With well over 100,000 ancient monuments, Ireland’s archaeological sites play a crucial role in deepening the understanding of human and environmental history. But these sites aren’t merely museums—visitors can play a hands-on role in unearthing the past by helping out on a working excavation site located 40 minutes from Dublin. In partnership with the local government, the community and the Irish Archaeology Field School, Cultural Tourism Ireland lets wannabe Indiana Joneses work alongside the experts. Join archaeologists, geologists and students at the ruins of the Black Friary, a 13th-century friary that was once an important ecclesiastical site. Rates start at £125.
If you’re intrigued by Costa Rica’s rugged wildlife, why not plan a trip around protecting it for generations to come? Sea Turtle Conservancy offers one-, two- and three-week trips to beautiful Tortuguero that allow you to work alongside biologists tagging, observing and measuring 300- to 400-lb green turtles and six-foot-long, 1,000-lb leatherbacks as they nest in black volcanic sands along the Caribbean coast. This research is vital to protecting the endangered giants. When you’re not helping out on beach patrols, the trip includes guided hikes and boat trips, plus time for relaxing and exploring. Rates from US$1,554.
Sandals Foundation’s Reading Road Trips give a whole new meaning to beach reads. Offered in Jamaica, St. Lucia, Antigua, the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, the program brings guests off their resort and into local primary schools, where, for a couple of hours, they read to students between the ages of five and seven, helping teach strategies for improving comprehension and reading skills. The US$25 fee for participating includes a donation to the Sandals Foundation, but participants are also encouraged to leave behind a new or gently used book to add to the school’s library.
Of all Orlando’s theme parks, there’s one you may not have heard of: Give Kids The World Village, a 79-acre non-profit resort where children with life-threatening illnesses can vacation with their families free of cost (accommodations, meals and attractions included). Volunteers play a key role in delivering this magic, running food stations, helping with character photo shoots and doing other jobs. The park offers a visitor volunteer program that includes a four-hour volunteering session, three nights at a hotel and early admission to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios. Rates from US$445.
In Richmond, B.C., your green thumb can help feed the hungry at The Sharing Farm. From beets and kale to tomatoes and zucchini, the farm provides thousands of pounds of produce to community kitchens and the Richmond Food Bank. Volunteers play a key role in making that happen, and visitors to Vancouver and Richmond are welcome to pitch in—no gardening experience required. Just show up on drop-in days (Tuesdays and Thursdays year-round and Saturdays from April to October) dressed for work and ready to help where you’re needed, whether that’s watering, weeding or other essential tasks. Free of charge.