The field of volunteer tourism, or “voluntourism”, has been growing in popularity. There are programs for just about every interest, they take place in foreign countries, usually off the the beaten tourist track and they connect you with locals. What’s not to like? So if voluntourism is such a thrill for adults, what about teenagers?
I set out to find if programs cater to the under 18 crowd and if so, were they exciting enough to distract them from a smartphone. In short, yes and yes. These may be a great way for teens to explore new cultures, make friends and rack up those community service credits. Plus, they’ll have the best answer ever for the dreaded “What I Did Last Summer” assignment.
“As a volunteer you will take part in lion walks and you will enjoy the exhilaration of being part of a hunt as the young cubs learn to stalk their prey. You will help feed the younger lion cubs if there are some on site at the time. Cleaning the enclosures and preparing meat for feeding times are daily tasks. You may also be able to learn to ride horses so you can cross the grass lands so you can effectively carry out boundary patrol and snare sweeping. Each day is exciting, exhilarating and an experience you will learn so much from.”
People to People Ambassador Programs – Spirit of Japan:Service and Friendship
Changing the world for 50 years, People to People has a wide variety of 1-2 week voluntour programs for grades 6-12. Your teen may want to sign up for Spirit of Japan:Service and Friendship, an immersive itinerary which focuses on assisting with tsunami recovery efforts. A quote on the People to People website captures the essence of the voluntourism movement best :
“It’s a mission that never goes out of style—to change the world by opening someone’s eyes to a new place, a new people, a new way of thinking. Amazing things can happen when you connect more than 500,000 curious individuals with equally inquisitive people on all seven continents.”
United Planet – China Summer Teaching Program
All teens over 16 years of age are invited to their volunteer abroad programs lasting one to twelve weeks. They do some environment and wildlife work, however, they have a strong focus on cultural experience and language immersion so you just may find yourself learning Spanish, Quechua or Romanian. This is the twelfth year they are offering a summer immersion program in rural China. Some of the highlights are:
- Provide educational opportunities to rural students (especially girls), and strengthen environmental awareness.
- Build friendships and understanding among people from around the world.
- Foster youth leadership through practical experience in a challenging environment.
- Experience life in rural China first-hand; learn about current social, political, environmental, and economic issues
To take part in GVI Foundations’ programs, teens need to be 15 years old. Sessions are two-weeks long and take place in 8 different countries, including Greece. That’s where they’ll be working hard to protect a rare and endangered loggerhead sea turtle nesting site. Don’t forget that snorkeling, beach time and sightseeing are all part of that hard “work”.
“As a volunteer on this project, you will live near Mavrovouni, a small settlement in the center of the Bay of Lakonikos in the southern Peloponnese. Gythio is the closest town and boasts a long seaside promenade, colorful fishing boats and the narrow streets and stairways typical of Greece. From our base, you will engage in daily morning surveys to record nesting activity and protect turtle nests against inundation by seawater and predation by mammals. Habitat restoration and public awareness and education campaigns round out this project’s holistic approach to turtle conservation.”
Their tagline is “Conservation for the next generation” and each program is ecology focused. They offer programs for teens grades 9-12, either through school groups or as independent travelers. Four of their programs are in Central or South America but one is US based, one of two domestic voluntours that made the list. This 9-day program takes place in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park.
A day from the itinerary might look like:
“You’ll begin your Yellowstone wildlife monitoring with the USFS. Depending on the project you might walk transects and search for animal sign, build a wolverine trap for the coming winter, or become a wildlife CSI investigator as you collect DNA evidence from a bear hair snare lure site.”
If I say“trail maintenance volunteer”, you think “hard labor”. You’re right, but if it takes place in the famed Cinque Terre region of Italy with sightseeing in Rome and the Amalfi coast, I might call it something else. Travel For Teens offers this 13-day long, Cinque Terre Service voluntour for teens in grades 7-12.
“In the past, activities have involved daylong efforts to beautify the trails by clearing brush and picking up trash, replacing the stones that compose the footpaths, and helping to rebuild walls to provide support to the all-important terraces. Each night, we’ll return to Monterosso to enjoy games on the beach, a quick swim before sunset, and some of the most amazing food in Italy.”
Amigos summer programs – Nicaragua : Boaco
Facilitating volunteers for almost five decades, Amigos is based in 14 locations in North, Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Special summer programs are 6-8 weeks long and can be attended by teens 16 and older. The Boaco, Nicaragua opportunity has the additional element of working with youth using art and media.
“Volunteers on this project will be collaborating with local youth to promote the rights of children and youth through art (drawing, painting, theatre, dance, music) or media (digital cameras, video, radio). Volunteers participating in the media project will work with various multimedia, such as digital cameras, flip cameras, and laptops to make media art projects, while volunteers participating in the arts project will work with various art materials, such as paints, posters, collage, etc.”
Journeys Within – Student Volunteer Tour and Journeys Within Global Connections
Jouneys Within has a couple of special programs that accepts younger teens, starting at 13 years of age. These are geared for school groups and a separate program, creates groups of up to 8 independently traveling teens, for a voluntour adventure. They take place in Cambodia so this one might be best for teens who have at least some prior experience with long plane rides and different cultures. That said, there are few people of any age that will have an experience quite this unique.
“Volunteer days are interspersed with adventures in the local area, like visiting Angkor Wat, which not only deepens understanding of Cambodian people, but gives hard working volunteers time to play! A great way to do more than see Cambodia, but to really be part of Cambodia.”