Student Volunteer Travel – An Opportunity for Giving & Growth

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Rather than partying hardy, many high school students are making the world a better place during their school breaks. Student volunteer travel provides young people with the opportunity to journey abroad with other youth and give hands-on help to those in need. The experience can be life-changing for teens, who learn about life in developing countries during their travels. Students gain a deeper understanding of other cultures and often become inspired to continue to do their part in improving the world. Here’s what to consider when deciding whether your teen should volunteer abroad.

Student Volunteer Travel - An opportunity for growth & giving

Volunteer service organizations

There are a number of international non-profit organizations that provide students with volunteer opportunities including Me to WeInternational Student VolunteersCross-Cultural Solutions and United Planet. These well-established non-profits strive to assist communities with meaningful projects while providing students with an experience that is part volunteer work and part cultural immersion.

For anyone who has a teenager who wishes to volunteer abroad, there are a number of advantages of working with an established non-profit organization such as these. On an organized trip, the teen will travel with other young people of approximately the same age, there is extensive pre-departure training and preparation for participants, and these groups work closely with communities to develop projects that make a meaningful impact in the lives of residents. Perhaps the most important consideration, these groups go to great lengths to ensure the safety of participants. This provides peace of mind for parents who may be concerned about allowing children to travel away from their home countries.

Quito Ecuador daycare volunteer work

Daycare volunteer work in Quito, Ecuador

Student volunteer travel experience in Ecuador

My 17 year-old daughter, Katie, attends a school that considers service, to both local and international communities, a significant part of a student’s education, personal growth and leadership training. As part of this commitment, over the last 15 years students have traveled on international service trips to countries such as Belize, Ecuador, El Salvador, Ghana, Mongolia, Morocco, Costa Rica and Panama during school breaks. Students are encouraged to participate in at least one such trip during their school career because of the important role international service plays in fostering teamwork, cultural learning, and global understanding.

During spring break of eleventh grade last year, my daughter was part of a group of 14 students and two teachers who traveled to Ecuador for two weeks on a trip organized through United Planet. The group spent their first weeks in Santa Lucia, an Eco Lodge located in a cloud forest north of the capital of Quito. The students worked on the construction of a new kitchen and dining area at the lodge and had the opportunity to go hiking in the rainforest to see how sugar is made from sugar canes.

During the week spent in Quito, the students learned about the history and culture of Ecuador through various activities. They also had the opportunity to stand on the Equator, visit Cotopaxi National Park, shop at the Otavalo Market and play tourist at other popular destinations. They also volunteered at a local daycare where they painted chairs, tables and murals. From the stories that I have heard, I think my daughter spent most of her time playing with local children, who sent her home with several beautiful hand-made pasta necklaces and memories that will last a lifetime.

Ecuador Quito daycare children playing

Playing outdoors with new friends in Quito

Lessons learned from volunteering abroad

An international volunteer trip affords teens the opportunity to explore the diversity of the world, develop a greater understanding of other cultures, and gain hands-on experience working in communities. It all adds up to an unforgettable experience. When I ask my daughter about the impact that the trip had on her, she talks about how they learned the importance of teamwork in achieving goals and that the seemingly small actions of individuals can have a large impact on the world.

Ecuador Quito Daycare children

Playing with children at a daycare in Quito

In my view, her student volunteer travel experience changed her more than she realizes. Katie was worried about the trip right up until the time of departure. Her concern was based primarily in the fear that she would not be up to the physical challenges involved because of her small stature. She not only survived the trip but also enjoyed it far more than she ever expected. She returned from Ecuador with a greater faith in herself and her capabilities and able to face new challenges head-on. This self-discovery combined with the increased desire and willingness to help make a difference in the world made the trip more than worthwhile.

Students at Equator

Visiting the equator with classmates

Upcoming student volunteer travel

Katie enjoyed her volunteer experience in Ecuador so much that she has signed up for another trip during this year’s spring break. In March she will travel to Costa Rica with a group of middle school students as one of the Senior Student Leaders on the project. The group will be working on constructing roads while they are in Costa Rica but the volunteers will also have the opportunity to take part in recreational activities such as zip-lining through the rainforest and visiting a sea turtle sanctuary.

About her student volunteer experience Katie said, “My trip to Ecuador taught me the importance of global awareness and how even the smallest acts of service can go a long way. It inspired me to make international service a larger part of my life, and as a result I am very excited to be heading to Costa Rica this March.”

Ecuador rainforest swing

Playing in the rainforest in Ecuador

Why to say yes to student volunteer travel

It might feel difficult to allow a child to embark on an international trip alone, but an anxiety you feel will be worth the impact of the student volunteer travel opportunity. I was nervous the entire time that my daughter was in Ecuador, even though she had traveled internationally by herself the previous year to attend a summer abroad program in Scotland. Despite those anxious moments, I have no reservations about allowing her to participate in the upcoming Costa Rica project because I know these experiences will help her personal growth, while reinforcing the important value that we all need to do our part to help our fellow citizens in an increasingly global society. While helping others, students return home with a new perspective and understanding of the global community and the role that each of us can play within it. That understanding is what will lead to global change.

Would you consider sending your teen on a student volunteer travel or study abroad experience? Let us know why or why not in the comments below!

A Note from The Spunky Travel Mama: No media rates, comps or compensation were received related to this post. All opinions are mine, as always.

All photos by K. Prestage and K. MacArthur.

About Lisa Goodmurphy, The Spunky Travel Mama

Lisa Goodmurphy is a lawyer turned family travel writer and a mom of two daughters. She grew up in small town Northern Ontario and now resides near Toronto, Canada. Badly bitten by the travel bug years ago, she considers herself fortunate that her family is equally enthusiastic about her mission to explore the world—one trip at a time. Lisa shares her travel adventures on the blog that she founded in 2011 and now contributes to many online media publications as well. You can read about her family’s travels on her blog, Gone with the Family, on Google+ or on Twitter as @GoneWithFamily.

  1. Claudia Laroye says

    I love this idea so much. What a great and powerful thing for any teen to experience – travel in the name of service to others. Good on Katie!

    • Lisa Goodmurphy, the Spunky Travel Mama says

      It was really an incredible experience for her, Claudia! I think it’s easy for teens especially to fall into the trap of thinking that they can’t really do enough to make any difference but having an experience like this demonstrates that even small individual actions can make a difference in the life of somebody else.

  2. I organized and led two such trips, one to rural china and one to Costa Rica … Very valuable for my kids, their travel peers and for myself too!!!

    • Lisa Goodmurphy, the Spunky Travel Mama says

      It must have been a great experience for you to have the opportunity to volunteer abroad with your kids – I hope to do that some day as well!

  3. wanderingeducators says

    this is one of the most important things we can do for our kids – SHOW them that the world exists, and we all have a place in it. Brava!

  4. This is such a great opportunity for teens. I’d love my kids to participate in something like this as they get older.

  5. Hi, Lisa!
    Your daughter’s trip seemed amazing! I was wondering if you had any tips for me to help convince my parents to let me participate in a similar experience.

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