BY JAKE PEARRING for Million Mile Secrets (edited by Year Out Group)
Experiencing new cultures or cities with friends and loved ones is eye-opening, enriching, and challenging in ways that help develop our characters and help us grow as individuals.
Though some people might choose to travel for rest, rejuvenation, or the opportunity to adventure somewhere new, you might also use your travel money and vacation days on an intentional trip, such as volunteering, giving back to a community, or serving others in times of need.
Responsible Travel: Find an organization that actually makes an impact not more harm
As Mahatma Ghandi said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Travellers are seeking opportunities to make an impact with their time while travelling and learning about other cultures and environments. And more than ever, people are considering how their travelling might have a larger effect on the destinations and people they come into contact with.
These encounters can also lead to transformative experiences for the traveller – expanding their worldview, teaching them a new skill or craft, or encouragement to be cognisant of their everyday life choices back home.
On the other hand, some opportunities catering to well-intentioned tourists and volunteers can simply be moneymaking schemes or actually work against the causes you want to support.
The first decision for any aspiring travel volunteer which cause, destination, or organization aligns with what you’re personally trying to accomplish or are passionate about. For some, this decision may be informed by cultural or religious beliefs, or by circumstances or disasters that warrant additional help or outside assistance.
My Good & Bad Experiences With Voluntourism
My wife went with her school to support a community’s rebuilding efforts after Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana in 2005. She and her team of 10 people volunteered to distribute aid, clean up schools, and generally serve the local citizens however they could in their brief week-long visit. This trip was coordinated by a school partnership with a reputable, local resource – which made trusting the receiving organization far simpler.
On the other hand, I’m embarrassed to admit my wife and I visited a once famous “Tiger Sanctuary” outside of Bangkok, Thailand, as part of our honeymoon in 2015. We spent time bathing and playing with the tigers, feeding them, watching them play, and watching them train with staff. We were sad to hear the “sanctuary” was shut down shortly thereafter for inhumane animal treatment and allegations of abuse.
We read about the tigers possibly being drugged, but also heard from others who visited and (seemingly) reputable websites which disputed those claims and assured visitors that the animals were well cared for.
Although we loved our visit, got cool pictures, and didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary (the tigers we encountered were incredibly energetic and youthful), we were sad to think our visit might have furthered the cause of mistreating these majestic animals. The lesson learned as a result was that the more intentional and dedicated research we can do in advance, the better!
If you’re passionate about the idea of your philanthropy or voluntourism being truly effective, check out When Helping Hurts – a great resource on the topic of creating long term, sustainable change!
Choose providers you can trust
Several companies offer a service to research voluntourism opportunities and match you based on the goals or causes you are most passionate about. This means whether you want to work to alleviate poverty, preserve endangered species, or simply help renovate a school or community centre, there’s an organization somewhere that would love to have you visit and volunteer.
There are also organizations that would love to have you visit them, learn about their mission, and volunteer to help further a given cause. But you’ll have to do the investigation yourself, and reach out to organizations and causes individually. This can be tougher from a booking perspective, but rewarding if you have a charity, organization, or cause you want to devote your time and efforts to.
1. Endangered Wildlife
As you likely already know, “Humans are the greatest threat to the survival of endangered species through poaching, habitat destruction and the effects of climate change.”
But incredible work is being done across the globe by informed volunteers to revert these changes, support endangered species, and work toward creating a sustainable future for incredible animals.
Whether you’re passionate about a specific animal species or family, or if you just want to make a positive impact for endangered species somewhere, there are numerous resources that can recommend tangible actions you can take. These include traveling to unique locations to build and protect animal habitats or rescue missions, or working alongside local governments or agencies to prevent or discourage poaching practices.
2. Endangered Habitats and Ecosystems
A similar, but different type of voluntourism might include volunteering to restore or protect a specific habitat or ecosystem, such as oceanic conservation or protecting the Peruvian rainforests. These can be tailored or more niche opportunities depending on the conservation efforts you’re passionate about—but the need is equally as urgent.
For example, volunteers might participate in a variety of ways such as diving, beach cleanups, identifying whale species, assisting with water quality monitoring, and many more opportunities. And I’m sure you’d get to enjoy some lovely scenery along the way!
Likewise, you might feel a special calling to assist in the preservation of the world’s rainforests. As you may know, deforestation is a growing issue caused almost entirely by humans and growing agriculture around the world. If you want to volunteer to prevent deforestation, there are various programs in rainforests and countries around the world that would gladly receive your efforts and time.
A favourite resource of ours can be found at WorldWildlife.org.
3. People/Communities in Need
I’m a huge advocate for any type of voluntourism, but the efforts closest to my heart involve working to serve people and communities in need. This is a broad grouping of volunteer efforts, but can include anything from:
- Building homes for the underprivileged
- Volunteering to distribute food or medical aid where necessary
- Working to partner with sustainable businesses to encourage long-term change in communities
In 2014 I had the privilege of traveling to Calcutta, India to volunteer briefly at homes for individuals with physical and mental disabilities. It was important to me to work with a group that was serving others, making lasting change, and not inadvertently creating dependencies that were unhelpful in the long term.
I desired to serve the individuals who lived at these homes – as well as spending time with and encouraging the hard-working staff who had devoted their lives to caring for the less fortunate. It was incredibly challenging, joyful, and rewarding, and the long hours of manual labour were nothing in comparison to getting to sit with, talk with, and hear the (sometimes painful) stories these individuals endured.
Regardless of how or where you want to volunteer, I can’t encourage you enough to find a goal, cause, or organization that you support or are passionate about and take the first steps toward contributing to that cause.
Voluntourism has grown immensely in recent years – and for good reason. Many of us travel to expand our horizons, learn more about other cultures and people, and challenge ourselves to be more compassionate, understanding, and empathetic of others.
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