Family Volunteering Overseas

dad volunteerSo you have the opportunity to take your family on an overseas trip. Why not make it a volunteering trip? The concept of volunteering overseas with your family is becoming ever more popular, especially in the last 5 years. Instead of sitting on a beach at a resort until the kids get bored, then sending them off to the “kids’ club”, you could all be helping to change lives. And you can still make time for the beach.

There are a few reasons why some families decide to embark on a volunteering adventure together. Some families might have no experience of volunteering, but like the idea and simply want to do something different. Parents on a career or study break might want to volunteer overseas, but can’t or don’t want to leave their families behind. Some parents see a family volunteering trip as a great way to teach their children to grow emotionally, learn a new skill outside of the classroom, and explore a new place. The younger children get to experience a new culture, the older children can experience the value of personal responsibility and the importance of commitment and social consciousness, and the whole family gets to bond while expanding their global horizons.

Why should you consider family volunteering?

girls together“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” (Mark Twain)

Volunteering as a family offers all-round benefits to the parents, children and the project itself. Many families find that volunteering together brings them closer. It’s almost guaranteed that the trip will create amazing memories, stories and experiences.

Family groups bring a unique drive and motivation to the volunteer projects, and create great team dynamics. Also, children can provide insight into aspects of the volunteer project from a fresh angle and with an unspoilt vision. This is something that staff and other volunteers can really appreciate.

How do you choose the right volunteer project for your family?

There are a number of volunteering possibilities for active and adventurous families. Volunteering at projects based around children (e.g. teaching projects and children’s homes) is currently the most popular choice, and is of great benefit both to the host project and the volunteer family. Most kids empathise with other youngsters of all ages and love to socialise together. Your children will experience first-hand what life is like for other cultures, right from the freshest source, and will be able to teach those children about their own country. Information coming from another child will doubtless be processed differently to that coming from an adult, because kids have their own ‘language’ that transcends cultural differences.

old age homeWorking with children isn’t the only option you could consider, if you are interested in family volunteering – there are many wildlife and conservation projects that are able to accommodate families. These can vary - monkey rehabilitation centres, wildlife rehab-and-release projects, elephant sanctuaries and many more. A family with a love of nature and conservation will probably never want to go home! It’s important to confirm what the minimum age requirement is – kids over 8 / 10 or so should be able to deal with the bush and its many denizens, but younger ones may not. Some projects might require volunteers to have a considerable amount of stamina and focus, so bear this in mind as well. 

Sit down with your family and ask them these questions to help you figure out where you’d like to go.

  • What are we interested in?
  • What do we care about?
  • What do we like to do?
  • What skills and talents can we offer? (Be honest!)
  • What projects would the whole family enjoy?
  • How much time do we have?
  • How will the volunteering experience benefit our family?

Are my kids too young?

young boysYou’ll be able to find out from your volunteer co-ordinator what activities the project involves and whether your children will be comfortable doing them. A good dose of common sense helps too – not all kids are the same! Recommendations vary, but here is a rough guideline:

  • Ages 0-3: it’s not recommended for volunteers to travel with children younger than 4 years old, unless one parent can supervise them full-time away from the project, while the other concentrates on the project activities. Family time will be limited to after working hours – this might not be what you want on holiday.
  • Ages 4-14: Children aged 4-14 can be accommodated with a parent or guardian at a variety of projects, provided they receive adequate parental supervision. Remember that you’re there to help the project, not give the staff more work to do! Also, check with the volunteer project co-ordinator that your host country will allow children this age to accompany them to the project and take part in the activities, as some countries have different guidelines of what constitutes ‘child labour’.
  • Ages 15+: Teenagers ages 15+ can volunteer with their parent or guardian at a large number of projects, with basic supervision. As any parent of a teen will know (and adults who still feel like one!), they can be quite self-absorbed. This is perfectly normal, but it’s good to push them out of their comfort zone, and get them focused on people or activities other than themselves. They might also be able to handle more challenging projects than working with children or animals, like helping with building or medical projects.

woman and childrenYour kids will also benefit from being aware beforehand of what to expect from life in a developing country, especially in the urban township areas. They may have heard or seen things in the media that make them nervous, and talk amongst their peers can also increase the jitters. Encourage them to articulate their fears. Don’t dismiss those fears, but do remind them that the media tends to show bad news and ignore the good, and that you are being vigilant and careful on their behalf, and you will handle everything as a united front.

Younger children might need repeated reassurance, as that’s how they process information. Older children will be appreciative of factual information, and more able to deal with the gritty realities of communities assailed by poverty and disease. Think carefully about what your family is ready to see – only you as a parent can decide.

Overall, well-managed projects encourage positivity, growth, hope and dignity in the communities they serve, and your children will witness this process and take part in it. Remind them that they are now officially part of the solution, even if a very small part!


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