Your guide to volunteering on a family vacation

Show kids that small contributions can make a big impact on your next travel adventure.

Family vacations offer a chance to create experiences and memories that last a lifetime. But what you leave behind in the places you visit and the communities you encounter matters, too.

Before the pandemic, volunteering on vacation was one of the fastest-growing choices for U.S. travelers, with one in four planning to volunteer on vacation in 2019. As travel restrictions ease, families are once again hoping to instill that sense of responsibility in their kids through travel.

“People want to help. They want to do something positive with their time,” says Alex Dubois, executive director of Discover Corps, which offers family vacations with volunteer components. “They want to leave something a little better behind.”

But no child wants their vacation time turned into chore time. That’s why Jesse Jones, volunteer coordinator at CoastWatch Oregon, suggests finding opportunities that play off a child’s own interests. If they’re excited by what they’re doing on vacation, they’re more likely to take their volunteer experience home—and make changes there as well.

And the volunteer time doesn’t have to consume the entire vacation. Small acts that organically integrate into the overall fun can have just as much impact. Here’s everything you need to get kids into a volunteering spirit on your next vacation.

Convincing kids to volunteer on vacation

For most families, the first hurdle will be getting your kids to buy in. Instead of focusing on the work, Jones says to use language that encourages kids’ curiosity and imaginations. Here are some other ideas to get them excited.

Give kids a say. Ownership of an idea goes a long way toward its success, and experts agree that one of the biggest ways kids can help a destination is by learning about it before they get there. Point kids to reading materials about the destination and the issues it faces to involve them in decisions about what vacation volunteering could look like. “It creates the right habits and sends the right signals, especially to your kids,” Jones says.

But help them think about the impact. The best of intentions can have the worst of impacts, especially if your child expresses a desire to help other kids. Visiting school children in classrooms can be disruptive. Snapping photos can invade privacy. Bringing candy to impoverished communities can come across as insensitive. Consider these rules when interacting with children.

Be clear on time commitments. Younger kids might be up for only one activity over the length of the trip; older kids who are passionate about a topic may want to do a multi-day commitment. Agree ahead of time so no one is surprised as the trip unfolds.

Accentuate the fun. Choose opportunities that allow children to do good without sacrificing good times. Create games out of activities that could feel like chores (Who can find the most interesting piece of trash on today’s hike?) and have prizes—like a sash made out of found recyclables—for each day’s winner.

Encourage kids to share their stories. Whether it’s before-and-after photos of the cleared trail, snaps of the fun they’re having helping in a community garden, or stories of the sea turtle hatchlings they saw making their way back to the ocean, the attention their stories bring (online or off) can help the community they’re serving—and provide a nice confidence boost for your kid.

Volunteer ideas for your next trip 

However your family chooses to help, remember that your role as a volunteer is to be a good guest in someone else’s neighborhood. Your family’s job is to help—not to lead, Dubois says. “That creates a much stronger bond with the communities and the places that we go.”

Here are some ideas to get started, wherever you’re vacationing.

If you’re camping or RVing …

Connect with a local non-profit. Join an already planned trail cleanup and you’ll likely meet some locals while you help. One example: Check the website of the National Park Service for organized events and drop-in volunteer opportunities that allow visitors to help with everything from shoreline clean-ups to feeding farm animals.

Become a citizen scientist. Look for a citizen science project in the place that you’re visiting. Bioblitzes, for example, focus on finding and identifying as many of a specific species as you can. These types of projects are especially great because you’ll be able to follow the results after you’ve returned home. And that will give a sense of purpose to tasks like counting and recording flowers, birds, or butterflies.

Fight food waste. Take a side trip to a local farm to show kids the importance of locally sourced food, as well as its connection to fighting global warming. For instance, volunteers can spend three hours gathering produce at farms in Sonoma County that will then be distributed to marginalized families through the nonprofit Farm to Pantry. That can help decrease the estimated 40 percent of food wasted in the United States, which experts believe contribute to about 10 percent of greenhouse gases.

If you’re traveling to a city (or even to Grandma’s) …

Be a good (temporary) neighbor. If you’re visiting family, see if a neighbor might need some assistance. If you’re staying at a hotel, ask about local retirement communities or adult daycare centers that you could help. (Make sure to call before showing up to make sure it’s all right.) From mowing the lawn to running errands, your family can make a huge difference in someone’s day.

Food bank help. Most food banks have days when locals can help with sorting. Check in with the location you’re visiting and sign up your gang for a shift. If you can’t get in, create a list of food bank needs and head to your locale’s supermarket to collect items for donation.

Or help city dwellers get access to fresh produce. At the Battery Urban Farm in New York City, volunteers can help with weeding and maintaining the garden. Volunteer-harvested produce is donated to homeless organizations and local public schools nearby.

Support locals first. One of the simplest ways that kids can make an impact is by spending money at local businesses. Give each child some pocket money and challenge them to spend it at a local business.

If you’re headed toward the water …

Be plastic warriors. Join initiatives like the Great Global Nurdle Hunt to collect and count the plastic pellets in the sand that can be dangerous to your destination’s habitat. Kids can send in your family’s count to see how your spot compares with others around the world.

Be litter collectors. Create a family plan to pick up litter when you see it. Having a bag on hand and talking ahead of time about what’s safe to touch will make it easy to develop the habit. Inspire kids with things like Take 3 for the Sea’s mantra: Committing to pick up just three pieces of trash when you leave a beach or waterway can make a tremendous impact.

Support marine life: Inspire kids to take care of their favorite beach spots by volunteering to protect them. At the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center, volunteers can help restore critical oyster reefs in the St. Lucie River and the Indian River Lagoon (the most biodiverse lagoon ecosystem in the Northern Hemisphere). Or volunteer with an organization like the North Myrtle Beach Sea Turtle Patrol in South Carolina. By taking an early-morning beach walk with their trained professionals, kids can help make sure that turtle nests are protected.

Heather Greenwood Davis is a National Geographic contributing editor. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

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