Volunteering together: how families can plan a vacation that gives back

Ahead of the big summer vacation season, here are some ideas for trying something different – service.

Photo illustration by John Kehe; photo courtesy of United Planet

This column is part of an occasional series about how you, too, can make a difference. It is written by the head of our partner organization UniversalGiving, which is dedicated to helping people give and volunteer.

Summer is an important time with family. And oh, the planning that goes into it! Should it be a road trip to California, visiting Graceland in Tennessee, or hiking the Grand Tetons in Wyoming?

This year why not try something different? You can spend time in an activity that gives back – volunteering together. Volunteering as a family instills values in children that last a lifetime. A youth from a family in which at least one parent volunteers is almost twice as likely to volunteer as someone who doesn’t have that role model, according to a 2005 federal survey.

So what do you look for in a family volunteering trip? Here are some ideas to help you get started:

Include everyone in the planning. Have family meetings. Encourage each youth to research a cause, an activity, or a country he or she is interested in. You can make these learning discussions, understanding more about the world. Further, if children feel they’ve had a hand in planning, they’ll be more engaged.

Vet the possibilities. Ensure you find an organization that has been checked out and verified. You don’t want to show up to something that is well intentioned but poorly organized. You can ask for testimonials and speak with a longtime volunteer. Ask how long the group has been in existence and if it has a board. It will help you gain confidence.

Navigating the options can be daunting – which is why I founded UniversalGiving. We make available a wide array of volunteering opportunities all over the world, which have been vetted across multiple criteria.

Consider staying local. Before you head out of state, note that some of the best opportunities are in your own backyard – your neighborhood! When I started volunteering, I worked at soup kitchens and tutored underserved students in East Palo Alto, Calif. East Palo Alto was only seven minutes from my home, but the community had a completely different culture and differing needs. It was a great education.

Don’t necessarily think big. Your volunteering trip doesn’t have to be a month or even a week. Yes, you’ll gain more if you spend more time. You’ll also build stronger relationships with local people. But people today are busy. One idea is to have a “regular vacation,” and simply add a day of service. It helps the organization. You are helped, too.

Involve younger children. Kids don’t have to be teens to volunteer. They will follow their parents, even if that involves carrying a can of beans at a food bank to pack a meal for a family. It’s a good example for them, and they learn to serve early.

Hold a community event. When you return from a volunteering trip, host a casual dinner. Share photos and videos – and if you really want to go far, try cooking the local food of the place where you volunteered! Have family members present two to five minutes on what they learned or what was a meaningful moment. It’s a great way to engage your community and drum up more support for causes.

Regardless of your vacation, enjoy your time together. Perhaps this year you’ll decide to give back, for all or part of the trip. You can tangibly affect the quality of someone’s life through your service. And your family will be stronger for it.

Pamela Hawley is the founder and chief executive officer of UniversalGiving. She is a recipient of the Jefferson Award (the Nobel Prize of community service). She also writes the blog “Living and Giving.”

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