Just a few short years ago, volunteering with your family may have sounded like a strange, foreign concept. There have always been outgoing families, ready for adventure. But in the mainstream culture, volunteer vacations weren’t something people did very often. Volunteering has traditionally been under the purview of the young and unattached. The stereotype was of the hippie explorer, wide-eyed and idealistic, with his backpack and bare feet. It was the PeaceCorps—more of a commitment than a discreet project—a two-year foray into a career of service, not a two week vacation with family. But today, that has all changed, and in a big way. Mainstream media outlets are touting the benefits of family volunteering, and families are listening. It’s a great time to have kids. Organizations are catering to young families too—families with five and six-year-olds, kids whose lives can be forever altered by experiencing new cultures in new places.
An recent article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette explored the benefits and risks of family volunteering. One question they pose (and that I’ve seen asked a number of times on various volunteering websites) is how much is too much? This is a tough question. In many cases, you can’t predict what your children will see. But you can take precautions. For example, don’t plan on taking small kids to a hospital or clinic. These are places where they could see frightening medical conditions, sick children, and even death. Unless you are thoroughly prepared to address these issues with your child, forcing them to experience intense suffering may not be the best idea. Obviously, this is especially true for very young children who may not have the capacity to process the experience, no matter how good you are at talking about it with them.
Political unrest is another common concern. Traveling with an experienced volunteering organization will protect you from many potential problems relating to violence or protests. In areas of political upheaval, violence can erupt suddenly, with very little warning. It is important that your guides have a thorough understanding of the political climate. They should also have a series of contingency plans in case things go awry. Do they have emergency evacuation procedures I place? Will you always have escorts with you who speak the language and have contacts in the area? These are good questions to ask before a volunteering trip in a conflict zone.
With some planning and forethought, families can plan peaceful, safe trips, even in some of the poorest and most troubled nations. Check out the PBS Family Guide to Volunteering for some additional tips and ideas (everything from wearing comfortable shoes to handling tantrums).