Travel and Volunteer Abroad

written by Ellen Freudenheim, MPH

Instead of relaxing over breakfast at a luxury hotel, today’s baby boomers are rolling up their shirtsleeves and volunteering their smarts and their services in places as far flung as Peru, China, India, Romania — and even Italy.

“Voluntravel” is a new term describing hands-on holidays that help make the world a better place. It’s a unique travel experience.

For many, combining vacation with public service offers cultural immersion, a chance to live with a foreign family, and a practical way to connect with people they’d otherwise never meet.

“A lot of people in my generation have that ‘60’s ethic of serving but didn’t have chance to do it back then,” muses Rick Lathrop. The 60-year old founder of San Francisco-based Global Service Corps, organizes educational programs in nutrition, sustainable agriculture, and disease prevention in Tanzania and Thailand.

Pay Your Way; Take a Deduction

Voluntravel isn’t a free ride, of course.

Only a few groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the American World Jewish Service (volunteer@ajws.org) offer modest stipends, and generally these go to volunteers with special skills suited to specific jobs.

Generally, you pay to work. The price tag for a two week foreign volunteer program ranges from about $1,500 to $2,500, excluding airfare. Fees cover room, board, and the privilege of working in locally-run, off-the-beaten-track programs. In some, but not all, cases the fee also includes international medical evacuation coverage such as Medex and a contribution to the local program’s overhead.

But there’s a silver lining. Unlike conventional vacations, you can take a tax deduction for both the program fees and airfare because the sponsoring organizations are not-for-profits.

Making a Difference Feels Good

Service programs offer individuals a way to make a difference in a world where the problems of poverty, conflict and disease often seem overwhelming. Many people find the combination of cultural immersion, doing good work, and travel irresistible, returning repeatedly for short stints of service.

Social worker Marge Rubin has taken ten trips with New Rochelle, NY-based Cross Cultural Solutions since retiring a decade ago at age 50. Each time, she’s spent two or three weeks teaching art therapy to orphanage staff. She’s volunteered around the world, from India, Ghana and Peru to Russia, Costa Rica, Thailand and Tanzania, and even in Kosovo refugee camps.

“I wanted to travel, but I wanted an insider’s view of countries. I wanted to be more active and not just a passive observer,” she said. “You come home feeling like you are a part of something. “I can’t travel any other way now.”

Huge Range of Jobs

Middle-aged baby boomers with careers in law, management, or business might wonder what they could possibly contribute to life in a remote third-world village.

As it turns out, plenty.

Most volunteers work in well-established local programs that rely on a constant influx of foreign visitors with a wide range of skills.

For instance, in the coming year 45- to 60-year-old volunteers might:

  • teach English to teens in Peru, China or Ostuni in Southern Italy
  • care for babies with failure-to-thrive syndrome in India
  • teach basic business skills to members of a women’s sewing collective in Tanzania
  • collect data on coral reefs in Belize, and
  • help transform a former Grenadian sugar plantation into a sustainable tourism destination

There’s room for spontaneously responding to what’s needed, too. One retired architect volunteering in Africa helped a technical school build a kiln, and taught the students how to make roofing tiles.

Most sponsoring organizations try to match volunteers’ interests and skills with field assignments. A home-repair hobbyist might be assigned a building project. An avid chef might work in nutrition education.

Stay a Week Or a Year

At Habitat for Humanity —the best known of international service organizations, with projects in over 90 nations— stints of work usually require a three-month minimum commitment.

However, many smaller organizations offer a very flexible menu of short and long stays. Travelers can even sandwich a week or two of volunteering into more conventional vacation plans.

“We have one-week options for all of our service programs and extended stays up to 40 weeks,” says Michelle Gran, who co-founded St. Paul, MN-based Global Volunteers (www.globalvolunteers.org) over twenty years ago. Global Volunteers expects to place about 1,500 baby boomers this year, mostly in short-term service programs.

Life-Changing Experience

Volunteers often describe their experiences as “eye-openers” and “life-changing.”

Rubin, the art therapist, jokes that she now has “a deep respect for my washer and dryer.”

She says, “You learn that we have so much in his country that we take for granted—and that poverty doesn’t equal unhappiness. People have strong family ties, spiritual beliefs, and a sense of joy in everyday life.”

As a travel experience, volunteering has as much in common with a standard five-city package tour as a home cooked meal has with airline food.

6 Tips on For Voluntravel

  1. Research several programs; they are all slightly different.
  2. Booking about three months in advance is recommended. However, last-minute travelers can sometimes book within a month of departure.
  3. Be honest about your creature comfort needs. Will you be happy with a sleeping bag in a tent, or do you want a hostel, motel or hotel?
  4. How much of a cultural immersion experience do you want? Would you enjoy a homestay?
  5. Get the details on the work you will be doing.
  6. Always get references — the most recent, the better!