Bringing awareness to the benefits of service travel


Hands Up Holidays – Luxury voluntourism

It may seem like a bit of an oxymoron — luxury voluntourism. The volunteer trips we have experienced would most certainly not qualify as luxury. Comfortable, safe? Yes. But luxurious? Um,no.  It certainly sounds intriguing and a great way to balance a desire to give back while also enjoying a luxury vacation.

Hands Up Holidays offers just that and is a unique hybrid in the volunteer travel industry. They combine tailor-made luxury travel experiences with philanthropic opportunities to interact with the local people of a destination in meaningful ways.  They have trips for singles, couples and families.  They also have a separate division for corporate incentive travel.

Recently, we had a chance to interview Hands Up founder Christopher Hill

 So first up — what makes Hands Up Holidays a “luxury” volunteer travel experience?

The main way our trips are luxury is the obvious way: in terms of accommodation. We focus on eco-luxury hotels, e.g. those luxury hotels that have high standards of environmental and social responsibility wherever possible.  Also, the fact that all our trips are tailor-made in order to ensure that the trip perfectly fits our clients’ requirements adds to the luxury feel.  Last, but not least, our personal, highly qualified guides for the sightseeing portion of the trip also make for a premium experience.

Could you tell us a little bit about how HandsUp got started?

My background was a degree in law and in finance, and after university I spent 6 years working in Corporate Finance here in London. I learned a lot of skills, but continually felt like there was more to life, and on a trip to South Africa in 2002 I found my calling! On that trip, I indulged in all the usual aspects of a luxury trip to Africa: incredible safari experiences, and enjoying all that gorgeous Cape Town and surrounds have to offer. But what was pivotal was the time I spent helping build a house for a family in Khayaletsha township, just outside Cape Town. This enriched the whole experience, as I got to interact meaningfully with the local people, gain insights into their lives, share stories, and also ,make a positive difference in their lives, tangibly, with a house they can call their own.  For me it was the perfect vacation: luxury hotels, amazing sights, and time to give back and go deeper. And I reasoned that I was not alone, that other people would like to travel this way, so I decided to leave my career and start up Hands Up Holidays to enable others to have similar experiences to me.


 How did you develop your mission?  

After South Africa, and leaving my job and deciding to set up a luxury voluntourism company, I spent the next 2.5 years travelling the world, building relationships with communities and local partners, before we were ready to launch in early 2006.

What are some of your signature trips?  Our most popular destinations are:

– India (sights such as Taj Mahal, Rajasthan, Kerala, combined with teaching or renovation work in the slums of Delhi)

– Costa Rica (sights such as Arenal vacation, nature reserves, gorgeous beaches, combined with wildlife conservation)

– South Africa (sights such as safari, Cape Town, Cape peninsula, winelands, combined with orphanage renovation)

– Belize (sights such as Mayan ruins, waterfalls, chocolate making, diving and snorkeling, combined with installing energy efficient stoves in the homes of those who can’t afford them)

– Guatemala (sights such as Antigua, Lake Atitlan, Tikal, combined with building a house for an impoverished family)

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I’m curious about how you build relationships within the communities you serve. Do you have guidelines for how that’s done or is it more of an organic case-by-case process?

It is more the latter, but the guiding principle is consultation, asking lots of questions, and never imposing what we think should be done.

Have you noticed any emerging trends in the voluntourism industry?

There is a trend for companies to get involved, either as part of an off-site meeting, an incentive trip, or as a dedicated team building event. For this we have opened a separate division Hands Up Incentives

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What do you imagine the future of voluntourism will look like?

I imagine it will be more “niched” in that there will be organizations specializing in a particular voluntourist, such as retirees, or particular type of volunteering, such as archeology.

What have been “the ripple effects” (or positive lasting effects) that have resulted both personally and in general?

I would say this varies with each client, and the most dramatic ripple effects would be cases where our clients have been so impacted by their voluntourism experience that they have relocated to live in that destination and give back on a permanent/long-term basis. This happens more with retirees, but has also happened with families.

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Jakera offers voluntourism in Venezuela

Jakera is an innovative hybrid voluntour provider, combining Spanish language immersion opportunities for students, along with adventure travel and volunteer projects.  Recently, we had a chance to interview Jakera’s founder, Chris Patterson.  Originally from Scotland, Chris fell in love with Venezuela and it was there that his dream for an innovative adventure volunteer travel company began. 

Could you tell me a little bit about how Jakera got started? How did you develop your mission?

I arrived in Venezuela in the mid 90’s by sailboat, having previously spent a number of years sailing the Carribean islands. I was eager to see the jungle and meet the indigenous peoples of South America that I had heard so much about, so I bought a trip to the Orinoco Delta with my last $200. I was fascinated with what I saw and the Warao people in particular and when I got back to the marina I told the story of my trip to the other sailors in the bar. To my delight they were equally fascinated and eager to go themselves at the earliest opportunity. The guide who took me was not available the following day to make another trip, so I ended up taking a group of French sailors there myself. I charged them the same as I had paid, paid for the lodge and transport and threw in a few cases of beer, and still had some dollars left over ! I had a fantastic time showing these newcomers what I had learned on my last trip and learned a hell of a lot more from our Warao boat driver and guides.  I realized that these Warao had a lot of knowledge, and that their ancient way of living harmoniously with their surroundings was something really special and worth showing to the world.

Jakera adventurers and volunteers


What are some of your signature trips?

That would have to be the ‘Travelling Classroom’. This program brings together everything we do, a full cultural immersion combining Spanish language tuition, real adventure travel delivered in an eco friendly way and community based volunteering. There is a huge interest and demand for volunteer projects but we feel that volunterism works best as a two way process – the Travelling Classroom is front loaded with Spanish language and adventure travel so students get a feel for where they are and understand the issues and context before they start volunteering. By the time the volunteer phase of the program starts, students are ready to ‘put something back’, and are more comfortable and able to interact with local people.

My favorite is a kayaking emersion deep into the Orinoco Delta with Warao guides. The key to this trip is we enter the Delta and see it from the view point of the locals, traveling slowly by kayak, foraging for food, making  shelter and surviving in this inhospitable jungle. It’s tough, but so is life for the Warao! We also hike to the top of the highest tepui in the Gran Sabana, MountRoraima, with local Pemon guides, learning about their unique and ancient culture along the way.



What kinds of volunteer experiences do your participants engage in?

We have a whole range of volunteer programs, ranging from working with underprivileged kids and poor communities to reforestation and reef conservation programs. They are all very hands on and we encourage students to give there ideas and input as much as possible. Many of our projects are participant inspired.

 Our house ‘Jakera Club’ is based in Playa Colorada. We built a community centre there a few years ago and now pack it with activities – for example, after school activities for local kids such as arts and crafts, sports etc, information sessions and activities for adults. We also have a tree nursery and are planting trees in the surrounding hillside to mitigate against landslides which have caused serious problems in the recent past. We also partner organisations such as Don Bosco (Street Kids project) and Imparque (National Parks). Lots to do!!


I’m curious about how you build relationships with the communities you serve. Do you have guidelines for how that’s done or is it more of an organic case-by-case process?

Organic is best – the most effective and enduring projects require engagement of local communities. It can take time for issues to surface and solutions to emerge. I guess the philosophy is about bringing people together – local people and our student volunteers – a dialogue based on sharing and exchanging. Removing ‘us and them’ distinctions!

It has been a very organic process from the start. We feel that it’s all about sharing experiences and achieving goals together. We try to involve as many locals as possible in our projects, to make them feel part of it and continue the work after we leave. It about sharing, building trust and making friendships.


 Have you noticed any emerging trends in the voluntourism industry? What do you imagine the future of voluntourism will look like?

I guess it becoming more and more popular. People these days want to do something good when they travel, get involved and really get to know the people in the country they are visiting, not just see the sights and take some pictures. If this trend continues it can only be positive for the host countries.

I also think – and hope! – that expectations are becoming more realistic. It’s a process and not an overnight one… A paternalistic approach is finally giving way to the realization that we – the volunteer – are getting as much out of the experience as the community we serve.  Voluntourism gives travelers the opportunity to get closer to people than ever before – this is a privilege and a responsibility.


What have been “the ripple effects” (or positive lasting effects) that have resulted from Jakera both personally and in general? 

We have a base in Playa Colorada, a little fishing village. Over the years we have become a very important part of that community, supporting the school, keeping the beaches and islands clean, hosting community meetings in the community centre that we built… our neighbours come to us on a regular bases now with ideas and requests, or asking for help or advice. I feel that we have a big responsibility now and it would be hard to leave or to move somewhere else.  That said,  I don’t want us to come across as too worthy. We’re having great fun – as we say in Venezuela – viva la vida!



Kids and Voluntourism – Kids Giving Back

Young volunteers with Kids Giving Back.

KIDS GIVING BACK (KGB) is a non-profit organization that provides  kids, families, schools and corporations  with volunteering experiences.  Based in Australia, they are committed to creating the “next generation of generosity” by creating opportunities for kids and their families to give back.  Recently, we had a chance to interview Ruth Tofler-Riesel,  Kids Giving Back.  Here is part 2 of her interview. (Part 1 was posted on Nov. 30.) 

What types of projects have you done? 

Overseas Alexander and I have volunteered with the programs teaching English and working with elephants in Thailand through Starfish Volunteers, and we have also volunteered in Guatemala working at a childcare center with children living in desperate circumstances as well as at an indigenous women’s weaving cooperative. We are about to travel to Cambodia and Laos where we’ll be teaching English as well as working at a center that offers street children alternatives to a life of drugs.

Volunteering with elephants in Thailand.

Locally (in Sydney, Australia) Kids Giving Back  has involved kids in more volunteering activities than I have space to mention here. We run Cook for Good at a local community kitchen where 15 kids and an equal number of adults cook up a storm, making meals that they then deliver to homeless shelters as well as individuals in need. Each session turns out around 250 two-course meals, no mean feat. To date over 1500 homeless have enjoyed these meals made by kids and parents.

Cook for Good program.

We run similar programs for kids at risk, and it’s particularly powerful and poignant when these young adults tell us that volunteering has made them realize there are others worse off than themselves.

Other local programs include making meals for asylum seekers who often have only one meal a day; sharing tea parties and games with the elderly in aged care homes – many residents rarely receive visitors and this brings them great joy; playing with kids from refugee communities at community days, participating in bush regeneration programs, tutoring students from indigenous communities to meet their literacy and numeracy needs, and connecting students to volunteer with programs that assist children with special needs. The list goes on, this is only a snapshot.

Young volunteer with Kids Giving Back.

How does volunteering benefit kids, in particular?

Volunteering is incredibly enriching – it immerses our children in real life, helping others, and interacting with people from all walks of life. It gives our children an opportunity to discover their own strengths and qualities, and use these to help others. I also believe it helps balance our children from the materialistic consumer world we live in.

Volunteering helps our kids to understand that everything they do, no matter how small, can make a difference to someone else. Kids love being part of a team, and volunteering gives them this opportunity, with its instant immersion in a new community and another culture. There is something about being part of a group of people, all working toward a common goal that is incredibly rewarding and makes kids and adults alike feel good.

Volunteering, be it at home or abroad, opens our kids’ eyes to just how much they can actually learn from those they are helping – it’s very much a two way street. When children become involved in volunteering with other communities, our world in effect becomes smaller as they become engaged with and build links with communities beyond their own.

Young English teacher in Thailand.

What is your hope for the future of your organization?

Volunteering opportunities for kids are often hard to come by, and our hope is to continue to expand the opportunities we can offer to kids, families and schools. Our tag lines are in fact also our hopes: “Creating the next generation of generosity” and “Connecting people, bridging communities”. The more volunteering becomes an integral part of the lives of kids, families, school and community groups, the more long-term, meaningful relationships can be formed between communities and volunteers as they both give and receive and grow together.


Kids Giving Back – Voluntourism for Kids

Last Sunday, I tuned into one of my favorite programs, CBS’ 60 Minutes.  The top story that evening focused on  “Children Helping Children” — kids who were learning early on in their lives that volunteering can be incredibly rewarding.  I practically lept out of my chair because this is exactly what we are trying to accomplish with Journeys for Good — showing people that volunteer travel is a great way to become engaged as a global citizen and that truly anyone can have a positive impact.  To see this kind of story on one of the top television programs in the US made me believe that voluntourism is truly coming into the mainstream and, conversely, coverage in mainstream  media will help people become more aware of volunteer travel.  Either way, it is an encouraing sign that this kind of forward-thinking is on the rise.

Recently, we had a chance to interview Ruth Tofler-Riesel, of Kids Giving Back.  She knows firsthand the benefits and rewards of involving kids in volunteering at an early age.  Below is Part 1 of our interview.

Ruth, what inspired you to get involved with volunteer travel?

My son Alexander is 11 years old, and like all parents of young children we want to find things for him to do that are fun and at the same time meaningful. I’ve always loved travel and in November 2010 I read an article about volunteering abroad. My brain started ticking as I realized this would be a fantastic thing to do with my active and engaging then 9-year old son. I soon became obsessed with the idea of volunteering in Thailand. I dug around the ‘net, and despite finding numerous organisations offering volunteering opportunities, none accepted children under 18. That was, until I found Starfish Volunteers.  Within a month Alexander and I headed off to Thailand for what was to be an incredibly rich and life altering experience.

Alexander helps out with elephants in Thailand.

We taught English to primary school kids in the poorest region of Thailand, we rode and cared for elephants and stayed in a village in the house of the head mahout. After work each day Alexander played with the local village children. One day after a day of teaching together, Alexander turned to me and said “Mum, why don’t we create something so that all kids can do the same volunteering that we’ve just done”.  It was his excitement that made me know that I needed to do something more, not just for Alexander but to make a difference to others.

This was the spark that ignited Kids Giving Back and I can honestly say that it was the elephants and teaching that changed my son’s life and his way of looking at the world.

Kids teaching English to kids in Thailand.

What is your organization about (their mission)?

Kids Giving Back is a recently formed non-profit founded by myself and my friend Carole Schlessinger. Our mission is to instill in children and their family unit the beauty of giving to others, not just of material things but of time, through real life experiences.

This is particularly pertinent at a time where many of our children are loaded with material goods, when what they really need (and as a recent UN study shows), is “time, not stuff”. Volunteering with children gives families time together as well as giving children the opportunity to develop new relationships, both with other volunteers as well as with members of the community with whom they are working.

Our tag line says it all: Creating the Next Generation of Generosity. We provide kids, families, schools and corporations with volunteering experiences locally, nationally, and internationally. We believe that when kids volunteer, we are developing our next generation of leaders and creating a culture of generosity and civic responsibility.

We are passionate about volunteer travel, and Kids Giving Back now has a partner relationship with Starfish Volunteers so families and school groups can book their Thailand volunteering trips directly through our Kids Giving Back travel agent.

We do however feel strongly that volunteering starts at home, and to this end we are linking kids, families and schools with a huge variety of volunteering opportunities with numerous non-profit organisations on home turf.

Kids prepare meals for the homeless in Australia.

What positive effects have you seen in your work?

Lots! Starting with the effects on the recipients – I know the difference that we and other volunteers with children have made in Thailand, teaching children whose only opportunity to learn English from native speakers is from volunteers, as well as supporting the ability of a tiny village living in poverty to live with the elephants that are a part of its culture. Locally in Australia our kids and families are making a difference every day, helping a wide range of communities. When Alexander and I volunteer, or when Kids Giving Back connects a school group with a community, the assistance these kids give is tangible, and they really do make a difference. And then there’s a whole other level on which kids touch the hearts of those they’re helping.

In terms of the effects on the kids, it’s great seeing them embracing real life, away from the cyber worlds so many of them get stuck in for many hours of the day. You can really see the kids’ focus shift as they become aware of others beyond themselves, and learn the value of empathy. It’s great when kids work side by side with their parents or teachers who, while acting as role models, also get to enjoy the children in a new way, partnering with them as together they help others. It’s a very powerful shift in dynamics.

Alexander will at times express his gratitude for the fact that he is receiving a great education, that he has a warm bed, that we have running water and electricity, and that he can eat nutritious food. This is the sort of awareness and empathy that comes from first hand experience, and I can see how volunteering has really informed Alexander’s perspective on our world.

Please check back next week for Part 2 of our interview.  

The Ripple Effect: Shannon O’Donnell, Volunteer Superstar, Part Two

Shannon at the Great Wall of China

Image source: Shannon O'Donnell

Welcome back part two of our Ripple Effect interview with Shannon O’Donnell, a travel blogger, speaker, and author of The Volunteer Traveler’s Handbook. She regularly volunteers and in 2011 launched her passion project, a community sourced database of local, sustainable organizations all over the world. She is the founder of the website and tweets at @ShannonRTW.

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