Volunteer Vacations: Give Back on Your Time Off

Volunteer vacations, if you are not aware, is an opportunity vacationers have of donating time and attention to a cause or organization. This can range from environmental work on a beach in Baja to maintaining trails in a state park or handing out free lunches in the city. Whether you are planning a vacation for your family, a group of students, or yourself, this may be your chance to give back and make a difference in the world around you.

While you may be a little hesitant about potentially sacrificing your relaxing vacation time to work, there are several benefits of volunteer vacations. First of all, you're helping a cause, affecting lives, and making a difference. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing the look of gratitude and relief on a parson's face when you hand them much needed food or help rebuild a home. Know you are doing good by rescuing injured dolphins, saving ducks from oil spills, or helping an endangered species survive.

Second, if you are a teacher leading a group of students or a parent, your youths will gain immeasurable experiences, values, memories, and education that cannot be earned through a traditional classroom. You can give them the opportunity to help someone or something, to broaden their horizons and encourage them to be compassionate, empathetic individuals who will, hopefully, go on to make a difference in other areas of their lives.

Finally, from a financial perspective, volunteer vacations are often inexpensive alternatives to traditional vacations. Many organizations and such have discounts available for visiting volunteers. However, even if you don't travel through these avenues, volunteering is always a cost effective alternative to visiting theme parks and other attractions that charge admission. As an added benefit, many volunteer efforts include a free lunch.

There are several opportunities for volunteer vacationers no matter your destination. You can essentially pick a destination and find causes, fundraisers, and activities for which your group can volunteer. This way you can be sure that the other activities and attractions in the area will appeal to your group during your off time since volunteering rarely takes all day, every day.

If you would like to work with animals:

Animal and farm sanctuaries and wildlife refuges across the country rely on volunteer work to maintain their facilities and keep the animals healthy. Louisiana's Sabine National Wildlife Refuge, the Vince Shute Wildlife Sanctuary in Minnesota, and the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Utah are but a few of the refuges that take in and care for wild animals that cannot exist elsewhere. Other sanctuaries maintain historic family farms or help grow organic farms such as the Woodstock farms in New York or the sanctuaries in Acton and Orland, California. Jobs at these sanctuaries range from fence maintenance to feeding the animals, cleaning the enclosures, cleaning the facilities, and office work. Some require a minimum of three hours while others ask for full-day commitments.

If you would like to work with the environment:

Working with the environment is a wonderful ecotourism opportunity that allows you to see beautiful landscapes that you are helping to keep naturally beautiful. National and state parks are always looking for volunteers to keep the trails clean and free from trash and there are also wilderness foundations that work to maintain the forests and animals within. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation asks for help to keep Montana's trails open and clean, to maintain buildings, structures, and fight weeds on their wilderness complex. The Sierra Club is an expansive organization that works to "preserve our wild America" and offers volunteer opportunities in a number of locations including Hawaii where you can keep trails clean in national parks or clean up beaches to their pristine state. Other organizations include the Appalachian Mountain Club, the American Hiking Society, and local work opportunities in nearly any area.

If you would like to work with people:

Working with people first hand is perhaps the most rewarding volunteer experience with the most immediate return on investment, if you will. Many people think that the most important volunteer work to be had is overseas and while working with kids in Africa would be, of course, intensely rewarding, there are people here in the United States that need attention as well. The Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity are constantly looking for concerned citizens and compassionate volunteers to help people rebuild their lives. Donate blood or an afternoon to help build a house in a disaster zone and see the rewards with your own eyes. Volunteer in cities at senior living facilities, read with elementary school students, hand out lunches in city parks, or help out with fundraising for a cause you care for. Local churches are a great resource for finding volunteer opportunities as many are always looking for ways to help the communities around them.

Ecotourism, in itself, is a wonderful way to vacation without harming your surroundings. You can, however, always do more to help. There are countless ways to make lives better, make nature cleaner, and make animals healthier. Volunteering is an excellent way to minimize harmful imprints on the world and be the bright spot in someone's day. Just by giving a little time and effort, you can change a person's life or make the environment just a little bit better than it was before. A wise person once said to "Be the change you wish to see in the world," and he wasn't wrong. While your student group is on vacation this year or next, lend a helping hand and be a force of good.