Although volunteering abroad is often misconceived as an activity for the 20-something-recent-college-grad, there's no reason why you shouldn't be able to help about abroad later in life, as a couple, or even -- yes -- as a family. For starters, it actively engages family members of all different ages in a meaningful project abroad and has a way of bringing families closer together than your average family vacation. It also gives parents the opportunity to teach kids to become lifelong active citizens and to broaden their worldviews.
Sounds fantastic, right? It can be -- as long as you know what to prepare for and what to look for in a volunteering abroad program in advance. Here are a couple of general tips to consider when preparing to volunteer as a family in order to work out some of the potential kinks ahead of time.
1. Find Something Everybody’s Interested In
Jerry Seinfeld might have a point when he claimed that “there’s no such thing as fun for the whole family,” but who says he can’t be proved wrong? The first step in figuring out the best way to go about volunteering with your entire family in tow is to, first and foremost, find something that aligns with everyone's interests. Yes, this may be a challenge, but if everybody’s not onboard from the start, you may find yourself with some less-than-eager participants.
For example, if you’re looking into a project with environmental conservation in Belize, make sure everyone fully understand that they might be getting their hands a little dirty and are downright enthusiastic about it!. This has the potential to be a harder sell the younger the kids are, but creating this civic mindedness early on in your family is something that can last a lifetime.
2. Find a Project the Whole Family Can Participate In
This one can definitely be a tough one to figure out. Depending on your family’s ages, skills, talents, interests, etc., you may need to get creative. For example, young kids or a family member with a physical disability may have a harder time actively contributing directly to certain projects (i.e. construction volunteer projects), but could be an active and helpful participant in others (i.e. volunteer teaching positions).
Specifically in regards to young children, even though they obviously won't contribute directly to projects that require volunteers to have a certain level of skill (and motor skills...), they can easily contribute to an area in other ways. Simply interacting with local children, or fundraising through their school before departing may seem like a small addition to the overall project, but it is still incredibly impactful.
Many volunteer sites even set eligibility requirements for all participants because of things like safety regulations. That just means that, if your family is a nontraditional volunteer group, you may need to find a more versatile project or program provider.
3. Find a Program That Accommodates Groups
If you’re considering traveling somewhere to volunteer with your family, it’s important to make sure that the organization / program provider you’ll be volunteering with is able to accommodate groups. Whether you’re staying in lodging provided by a local organization or you’re intending to find your own lodging, it’s important to realize that some of the areas around the world that need the most support from volunteers and the least equipped to accommodate them. If your kids are coming along, the safety of the region may, again, warrant extra consideration (check the U.S Department of State's website for the latest travel updates).
On that same note, volunteering as a family doesn’t really imply that the adults will be actively participating as their children are being supervised under some form of childcare. Again, many regions in need of volunteers won't have childcare easily accessible -- but, at the same time, those lacking childcare may consider it culturally OK for you to bring child to a school meeting, or to let children as young as 4 go off and play with their friends.
There’s no denying that you and your family have a ton to offer in the way of volunteering, but make sure you’re capitalizing on what you can offer as a family.
So, if your kids are a bit too young, or the nature of the work doesn’t quite fit them -- don't throw away the idea of volunteering abroad quite yet. Talk things out with your program provider or volunteer organization. Will you be able to participate in the project while your kids sit nearby and color? Will you be able to work it out so one or another of the adults are with them at all times?
There’s no denying that you and your family have a ton to offer in the way of volunteering, but make sure you’re capitalizing on what you can offer as a family to make sure that you’re able to contribute the most and get the most out of it for yourselves.
4. Know When to Go and How Long to Go For
Of course, your kids have built-in free time for travel with summer, spring, and winter breaks, but the older teens and adults in your family may not necessarily have the same flexibility. If that’s the case for your family, it’s important to work out a time to volunteer that fits into everyone’s schedule. Summer breaks especially are a great opportunity to volunteer for a month or longer! (And, we really think everyone should volunteer abroad for longer.
The obvious perks of volunteering for longer is the opportunity to watch a project develop and, hopefully, come to fruition. This still may be difficult in the span of a couple months, but it's far more likely that you'll see growth in a couple months versus a couple of weeks. Seeing the effects that a positive volunteer experience can have on individuals or a community is a great way to help your family evolve into lifelong active citizens. That being said, short term volunteer programs are still worth doing, if you do them right and responsibly.
Another option that might suit your family, if volunteering for a chunk of time isn’t an option, is to create a repeated relationship with an organization or volunteer project. For example, setting up a relationship with a school, animal shelter, or other organization that you and your children can continue to go back to not only provides ongoing support, but it also affords the opportunity to develop lasting connections to the people you’re helping or with whom you’re volunteering. These potentially lifelong friendships have the prospect of leading to the same long-term positive changes as a continuous long term volunteer project.
5. Go with a Program Provider Experienced in Family Volunteering
Taking everything we’ve said so far into consideration, it may be helpful to consider volunteering as part of an organization that helps to arrange volunteer opportunities specifically for families. Groups like Projects Abroad and Global Volunteers help to prearrange volunteer options specifically geared toward families with various interests and age groups.
Sometimes, there are even discounts in the program price offered to children under a certain age. Keep in mind that there are age limitations on certain programs, but don’t let this discourage you. With all the program options out there, there’s sure to be one to match the needs and skills of your family.
Also, while it is not necessary to go through a prepackaged family option, well run programs will provide peace of mind, in-country support, and the knowledge that your whole family will be able to contribute to your chosen project. Furthermore, if you choose a family friendly program provider, you'll have the added security that the program provider has previous experience working with and assigning volunteer projects to families -- something every family knows is a perk that’s not to be underappreciated.
Suggested Family-Friendly Volunteer Abroad Programs
- African Impact: African Impact offers community and conservation volunteering programs in multiple African countries. They also offer a number of "specialist volunteering projects," including family group volunteering projects. Read all African Impact reviews.
- Cross-Cultural Solutions: CCS offers programs worldwide in a variety of different fields -- and has experience placing families (with or without kids) in their programs. Read all Cross Cultural Solution reviews.
- Global Vision International (GVI): Like Cross Cultural Solutions, GVI has experience and caters towards families who want to volunteer abroad together. They even offer discounts for family members under the age of 18. Read all GVI Reviews.
- United Planet: United Planet has a wide range of programs and locations, and again, lots of experience placing families in volunteer projects abroad. For families with young children, they suggest their Romania, Peru, or Nepal volunteer programs. Read all United Planet Reviews.
- Camps International: Camps international offers programs specifically geared towards families who want to volunteer abroad to help with various types of volunteer projects in Africa, Asia, or Latin America.
- Sierra Club: Part of the largest grassroots environmental organization in the country, Sierra Club provides environmentally-friendly outdoor adventures—from Tahoe to Tibet—for people of all ages, abilities, and interests.