‘VOLUNTOURISM’ FOR TEENS
SUMMER PROGRAMS THAT CENTER ON SERVICE
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.