Travel is a win.
Volunteering is a win.
Travel+Volunteering is a win+win.
“Voluntourism” a simple equation, but one I feel like too few people take advantage of. So I’m aiming to share my experiences and maybe help you brainstorm the broader possibilities for your next trip.
Over the past 11 years, I’ve taken 10 of what I call travel-with-purpose trips. They have taken many different forms from mission trips to company-sponsored volunteering, but they all have three things in common:
- Working for a good cause
- Exploring a new place (often international) in a non-touristy way.
- Enabling trips that would otherwise be unaffordable
Here’s a breakdown of these types of trips that not only grew (or, more accurately, planted) my travel bug, but were incredibly formative experiences where I both contributed to a cause much bigger than myself and made lasting friendships.
- Mission Trip (x2)
Context: As a high school junior and college sophomore I went on two mission trips to San Lucas Toliman in Guatemala. The trips were organized through my church and led by my mom. This was my first ever international travel and the second time I had been on an airplane.
Purpose: deliver medical supplies and hygiene kits, help construct a women’s center and other stuff.
Favorite part: holding an after-school VBS and running the games station and playing with all of the happiest kids you’ll ever see.
Bonus: Boating across Lake Atitlan to another village on Fourth of July.
Cost: $900/trip (significantly subsidized by fundraising efforts)
- Senior Service Trip
Destination: Pearlington, MS
Context: As a high school senior in 2008, my school district gave any seniors the opportunity to go on a volunteer trip over spring break. It was especially awesome since all my best friends signed up (I even met my future prom date).
Purpose: rebuild homes after Hurricane Katrina.
Favorite part: when the home owners were so thankful they brought us lunch and hammering stuff.
Bonus: attending a southern baptist “hallelujah”-style church service and playing ultimate frisbee on the beach.
Cost: $0 (paid by public school district)
- College domestic service trips (x4)
Destination: Duluth, MN; Atlanta, GA; Hiwassee, NC; Kissimmee, FL
Context: From my freshman through senior year in college I was involved with an organization called Alternative Spring Break. Every spring break for four years I joined a new team of 11 others and road tripped to a different place around the country to volunteer for a specific issue. It was one of my favorite and most rewarding parts of college. And I’m super proud that as a freshman we sent 8 trips, when I was president my senior year we sent 26 and now it is the largest such college organization in The country
Purpose: renovating a camp for kids with AIDS/HIV, working with homeless, invasive plant removal, operating a theme park for kids with illnesses (respectively).
Favorite part: cooking and serving food in a restaurant for Atlanta’s homeless and dressing as Frosty in a parade for kids.
Bonus: square dancing in NC and getting to know other college groups from across the country.
Cost: $200 each
- College international service trip
Destination: Dominican Republic
Context: During my senior year my ASB organization sent its first international trip over winter break. As board members, we got first dibs on spots.
Purpose: Set up a medical clinic for the orphanage where we were staying and all the surrounding villages. Other people in our group helped with English classes at the orphanage.
Favorite part: Using my Spanish to really help explain people’s problems and doctor’s solutions and playing with kids at the orphanage and showing them my slack line.
Bonus: going to the Haiti border town and seeing how people make a living running goods constantly across the border bridge.
- Corporate international service
Destination: Langzhou, China (the middle)
Context: During my 3rd year at Cerner I qualified and was selected for a really cool program they had where you can go on one of 6 or so volunteer trips in countries from Uganda to Romania to China. The trips have some sort of health mission and expenses are paid by the company’s charitable foundation.
Purpose: We were supposed to run a medical clinic, but the permits were unexpectedly denied last minute and we changed to supporting farmer co-ops, visiting orphanages, etc.
Favorite part: Taking kids with disabilities to a nature park and boating on the lake.
Bonus: Seeing a whole interior province I’d never visit as a tourist and going on our day off to hike around a National Park with incredible sheer rock canyons.
- Experiential learning consulting project
Context: As a first-year MBA I joined a program at my school where do a semester-long consulting project for real world, paying clients. I was the Team Lead for a team of four and our client was an NGO focused on eliminating extreme poverty through agribusiness in one of the most conflict-torn countries in the world – Democratic Republic of Congo. Our project included an 8-day site visit to meet the client and advance the project. We ended up going to Uganda (just east of DRC) because our university denied approval for travel to DRC and it was more productive to see a more advanced business environment anyway.
Purpose: Understand the plantain supply chain to gather context for a consulting project and help an NGO across the border in Congo support local farmers.
Favorite part: Traveling across the entire southern half of the country to visit different sites and seeing elephants, antelope, rhino, baboons and some gorgeously diverse scenery.
Bonus: Dining at a jazz club with our clients and going whitewater rafting on the Nile on our day off.
I love thinking back to all these trips as I right them down. It makes me smile. The new places were amazing and the travel was crazy affordable, but it’s the memories of the people I met, served and worked with that I will cherish forever.
So how will you travel with purpose?