At the end of September this year, the Family Travel Association is hosting its first annual Summit at the Mountain Sky Guest Ranch in Montana. Over the course of two full days, an assembly of industry executives and family travel experts will expand upon topics essential to a rounded understanding of the challenges we face today with family travel and the efforts we can make as an industry moving forward. In anticipation of that, we will count down the 12 weeks leading up to the Summit by spotlighting 12 core family travel topics to the public. Each week, we will publish an introductory essay written by an authority on the topic, which will open it up for public discussion. Following the Summit, we will initiate a 12-month process of digging much deeper into each of these topics, one per month. By the time we gather for the next Family Travel Association Summit in September 2016, we expect to have a much more powerful grasp of what’s at play in family travel.
TOPIC 7: Combining Service-Learning with Family Travel
Summers growing up, I spent lots of time with my mother at our local Meals-on-Wheels. She was president of the nonprofit and in constant need of volunteers to cook, pack and deliver meals to people in need. Like any typical teenage boy, I would rather have been sleeping in, riding bikes, hanging out with friends etc., but little did I know mom instilled a sense of service I never lost.
Like my mom, I wish to set a foundation for my own children, so that when they grow up and begin their travels, they’re primed to learn respect for others, appreciate differences and become socially responsible citizens. I accomplished this through the potentially powerful combination of travel and service: transformational learning experiences for the entire family.
Volunteer families active in trail construction in Hillandale Park, Virginia. Photo via Flickr/cheezedunx
However, it can be challenging and confusing to find meaningful and responsible volunteer travel placements. Today’s conventional wisdom about the advisability of volunteering with children and animals has changed, as has the understanding of what it means and takes to do good, whether through donated time or money. Great care should always be taken when planning volunteer vacation experiences appropriate for everyone in the family, in particular while working in partnership with the underserved, and the community organizations that champion their interests.
Not Every Volunteer Experience Is Appropriate
Just as we parents ultimately wish to “do no harm” in raising our children, we also need to do no harm when combining service-learning with travel.
In my professional life as a college professor, I’ve taught service-learning courses, some involving travel. In 2003, I created a course about the role of early experiences in sculpting the neural circuitry of the brain. The course culminated with a service trip to Tutova, Romania, where we worked with institutionalized children over a two-week period in a rural hospital. We partnered with the nonprofit international volunteer organization, Global Volunteers, to facilitate the Romanian component of the course.
In Tutova, I was paired with a boy named Gabi, who, at almost five years old, had been a hospital resident nearly his entire life. Gabi did not speak, eat solid food or interact with any of the children, and had developed many autistic-like behaviors. During the two weeks we were in Romania, however, Gabi took his first bite of a small chunk of banana hidden in yogurt, and I was nearly brought to tears.
But Gabi remained in Romania. During the trip, I mentioned to my students and our guide that I, myself, was an adopted child. Our Romanian trip leader commented that it might offer an explanation for why I came. Perhaps… but it didn’t change how the children in the hospital were abandoned by my group, and by every other group of voluntourists who streamed through the hospital at semi-regular 2-3 week intervals. Research suggests there are many long-term developmental effects due to institutionalization, and that the comings and goings of untrained volunteers can also be detrimental. It is in part for these reasons that we did not return to Romania.
Thinking About Children, Family and Giving
What does this have to do with family travel? Everything. It cuts at the heart of what makes a family, and the power of travel. I returned home from Romania on the day of my daughter’s second birthday. After two weeks away, I was struck by how she had grown – she was taller, steadier on her feet and had started stringing words together into sentences. I think back on this as my kids have gotten older and we’ve looked for opportunities to give back while we are on vacation. The most important thing is that we try not to make our vacation experiences all about ourselves.
Accordingly, we have found a number of organizations that help teach kids life lessons about responsibility and compassion through volunteer experiences. One of my favorites is Give Kids The World, a nonprofit storybook resort where children with life-threatening illnesses and their families are treated to weeklong, stress-free vacations that include visits to attractions such as Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, SeaWorld Orlando or the Kennedy Space Center. The resort relies on the volunteer spirit of individuals, families and groups to operate 365 days a year. I’ve volunteered at Give Kids The World multiple times with my family, as well as taken groups of college students there over spring break.
Give Kids The World is just one of a growing number of volunteer-vacation options at home and abroad through which traveling families can make a difference. Interested in animals? Check out organizations like Farm Sanctuary, where families can learn valuable lessons about where food comes from. Outdoorsy types? Look into the American Hiking Association, where volunteers can install stepping stones or remove debris, so hikers can enjoy trails for years to come. Heading to the city? The nonprofit New York Cares can match your family with volunteer opportunities within New York City.
These are just a few of many volunteer options that enrich a family holiday by allowing you to devote all or part of your time to giving back.
And you? What are your favorite kid-friendly charities or nonprofits that have demonstrated a willingness to understand and cater to family interests? The Family Travel Association is looking to identify more initiatives that exhibit best practices.
Please share your feelings in the comments below or, for more interaction, on the Outbounding discussion board prepared specifically for us. And stay tuned in the weeks ahead for more articles about core family travel topics.
Dave Parfitt is a married father of two, who lives in Rochester, New York. In addition to applying his PhD in neuroscience at a bucolic western New York college, he launched AdventuresbyDaddy.com to chronicle his family adventures and offer family travel advice and escapist fun from a Dad’s perspective.
For more essays in our FTA Spotlight: Re/Defining Family Travel series, click on the topics below.
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