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Family Travel That Gives Back: A Meaningful Vacation

Going Away for a Good Cause

Americans sometimes choose work over play -- a 2014 study found that more than 150 million vacation days go unused every year -- but a new kind of family adventure may be just the thing to give today's modern family a high-quality break.

A volunteer vacation, or service trip, offers an opportunity to do good while working together as a family. A growing number of organizations now make it possible to do it without spending weeks or months away.

Kimberly Haley-Coleman founded Globe Aware to weave her passion for cultures, languages, and out-of-the-box travel with the strong demand for short-term volunteer trips. Her non-profit fosters “a mutual learning experience” benefiting travelers and individuals in needy communities worldwide.

“We’re not putting people on ladders or going into war zones,” says Haley-Coleman. The liability is too high for her small company, and it’s not their mission – which may come as a relief to those worried about the challenges of global volunteer work.

Globe Aware specializes in community-driven projects that can be completed in a week, from Saturday to Saturday, without need for language or technical skills. And there are no age restrictions. Participants have ranged from 2 to 95 years old.

Most of the week is devoted to project work and organic interactions with local residents, but volunteers still visit landmark sites like Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat. “We go to tourist favorites but focus on the cultural awareness window to the world,” she says.

On one of their Cambodia trips, volunteers assembled wheelchairs for land mine victims. In Guatemala, they installed concrete floors and outdoor garden spaces in the homes of impoverished single mothers.

“It’s tangible, visible giving, not just writing a check,” says Haley-Coleman.

First-World Problems, Illuminated

Waiting to complete an international adoption inspired Mary Voorhies and Philip Southwick to take a working vacation to Nicaragua, where they helped to deliver clean water and establish modern bathrooms in rural communities.

For Voorhies, the most valuable takeaway was this realization: “Road bumps in my every day life are all now first-world problems.”

An Unexpected Gift … and Guilt

Krista McKay accompanied her nurse-practitioner mother on a medical mission trip to Honduras that she described as “an operation in improvisation.” The small but mighty team of doctors, surgeons, and nurses from a suburban Philadelphia hospital has visited the same villages for more than five years now. Though she is not a healthcare professional, McKay was invited to join the group on a recent visit after lending her marketing and fundraising expertise because the volunteers have to cover all costs themselves, including medical supplies.

In the heart of the village, the group sets up mobile clinics where locals line up to be seen for anything from common cold symptoms to gaping wounds to complications from diabetes. They also perform surgeries in the local hospital, where the team scrubs with a wash basin because there’s no running water. Patients wait with outdated x-ray printouts while wild dogs run in and out of the building.

The strengthened relationship McKay and her mother gained from working side-by-side in hard healthcare situations – treating seizures on the spot, in one instance – made the trip worthwhile. Still, McKay returned with mixed feelings. “I didn’t feel like what I did was enough. You feel good for doing something good, but you also have guilt for having more than you need.”

Planning a Giving Vacation

Motivated to make a difference in someone else’s life – yours included – on a service adventure abroad? There are risks and rewards associated with giving this way, which is why you should do adequate research when choosing an organization to handle your trip, says Haley-Coleman.

Unsure about bringing younger family members? Evaluate what exposure they’ve already had, and consider a closer-to-home Latin American country vs. crossing an ocean for their first experience.

Choosing to do good on your next family vacation instead of simply consuming goods (or staying behind the desk and letting your employer have your unused vacation days) is a wise investment that can pay off in many ways.

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