Choos­ing a sum­mer pro­gram for an older teen doesn’t have to be about the tra­di­tional camp ex­pe­ri­ence. It doesn’t even have to be about the camper. A grow­ing op­tion for teens who are in­ter­ested in en­gag­ing in the world in a pos­i­tive way is ‘vol­un­tourism,’ or travel com­bined with com­mu­nity ser­vice.

There are many such pro­grams avail­able. Teens can vol­un­teer here in U.S. cities like Wash­ing­ton, D.C., or Bos­ton; on Na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tions in Mon­tana or Alaska; or in far-flung des­ti­na­tions such as Thai­land, Africa, Peru or Costa Rica.

Donna Wein­traub at Camp Spe­cial­ists, a camp re­fer­ral ser­vice, says, “The ben­e­fit goes be­yond the rolling up of sleeves to do work; th­ese kids are get­ting an in-depth view of how oth­ers live in the world to­day.”

Wein­traub ad­vises par­ents to se­lect a pro­gram based on what their teens hope to ac­com­plish, and what they are will­ing to do.

Jill Ti­po­graph, sum­mer plan­ning ex­pert at Ev­ery­thing Sum­mer, tells par­ents to have their chil­dren test the waters and start do­ing com­mu­nity ser­vice at home be­fore tak­ing a trip abroad. Par­ents should try to en­sure that there is a pat­tern and a con­nec­tion to com­mu­nity ser­vice projects un­der­taken. If done right, she says, “Giv­ing back and pay­ing for­ward should be an in­nate skill that stays with them for the rest of their lives.”

Some soul search­ing needs to be done be­fore se­lect­ing a pro­gram. The com­mu­nity ser­vice should speak to a pas­sion or an in­ter­est the stu­dent wants to

ex­plore. Kather­ine Day­ton, the di­rec­tor of Vi­sions Ser­vice Adventures, a com­pany de­voted ex­clu­sively to sum­mer ser­vice trips, says that when kids are do­ing phys­i­cal la­bor and get­ting pal­pa­ble con­crete ex­po­sure to dif­fer­ent peo­ple and re­al­ize they can be help­ful, it can be life chang­ing.

“Kids de­velop grit and re­silience,” Day­ton says, “and it is good for them. It is dif­fer­ent than ex­celling in academics.” Vi­sions Ser­vice Adventures of­fers a va­ri­ety of ser­vice trips, rang­ing in des­ti­na­tions from Na­tive Amer­i­can reser­va­tions to Ecuador and the Gala­pa­gos.

Teens on such pro­grams help build schools, wa­ter sys­tems, houses, com­mu­nity cen­ters or dor­mi­to­ries at or­phan­ages. They are do­ing real work, but they also get to see how happy some peo­ple are in those ar­eas, and how strong their fam­ily and com­mu­nity ties are. Feed­back af­ter the trips of­ten car­ries one con­sis­tent theme.

“The kids are changed,” Day­ton says. “They are more em­pa­thetic and ap­pre­cia­tive of ev­ery­thing they have. They are also more will­ing to be in­volved in things.”

West­coast Con­nec­tions / 360° Travel of­fers a range of dif­fer­ent pro­grams that com­bine ser­vice, ad­ven­ture and tour­ing. Mark Se­gal, the di­rec­tor of West­coast Con­nec­tions / 360° Travel, says kids de­velop com­pas­sion on those trips.

“For many,” he says, “it is their first ex­pe­ri­ence out of their com­fort zone. They come home and say, ‘I want to do more.’”

He finds the teens are in­flu­enced by the trip lead­ers, who are pos­i­tive role mod­els for them. It also helps them an­swer the ques­tion, “Who am I?” as they learn more about them­selves with that type of ex­pe­ri­ence. Se­gal says a com­mon stu­dent re­sponse af­ter the trip is: “It was eye-open­ing. I have grown to ap­pre­ci­ate how for­tu­nate I am.”

Lori Rabenou, a mother of two in Old Tappan, sent both her chil­dren on sum­mer ser­vice ad­ven­ture trips through Bold Earth – twice. Ni­cole, 14, and Brett, 16, each went to both Hawaii and Costa Rica dur­ing suc­ces­sive sum­mers.

Brett built beds for chil­dren in Costa Rica who had pre­vi­ously shared one pil­low with sev­eral other chil­dren. “To see the look of hap­pi­ness on their faces af­ter get­ting a bed for the first time, some­thing we con­sider a ne­ces­sity,” he writes, “re­ally makes you think about all of the things we take for granted in our so­ci­ety.”

Ni­cole, who helped con­struct a home in Costa Rica for a Nicaraguan refugee and her five chil­dren, says, “When we

ar­rived at La Car­pio, I had no idea what to ex­pect. This part of the coun­try was un­known to me. Here were in­no­cent peo­ple suf­fer­ing and liv­ing in a world of poverty and low ed­u­ca­tion with dreams of suc­cess.”

Se­gal says teens are “grow­ing, learn­ing, ma­tur­ing and be­com­ing global cit­i­zens” dur­ing those ex­pe­ri­ences. He notes that adult ‘vol­un­tourism’ is grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity, as well, and he at­tributes it to the fact that serv­ing oth­ers pro­vides a huge amount of sat­is­fac­tion, no mat­ter the age.

Day­ton says the kids who par­tic­i­pate in those ex­pe­ri­ences are “liv­ing it up, en­joy­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

REAL WORK Ser­vice pro­grams al­low teens to see the tan­gi­ble re­sults of their ef­forts in ad­di­tion to con­nect­ing with peo­ple around the world.

BUILD­ING BLOCKS Campers in Hawaii work­ing on a con­struc­tion project.

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