Teens For A Change: Finding A Great Volunteer Vacation Trip

By Nancy Schretter, Editor

The popularity of teen volunteer vacation programs has soared in the last few years. These trips with a purpose allow teens to travel, get a new perspective on the world, make a difference in the lives of others, and grow in the process. While numerous opportunities are available in the United States, the most popular trips are often those to exotic destinations around the globe.

A variety of resources are available to help teens and parents identify exciting volunteer travel opportunities. Local schools and church groups often arrange community service trips. In addition, a number of nonprofit and for-profit organizations specialize in teen volunteer vacations and provide a wide range of high-quality options. Vermont's Putney Student Travel, for example, has been leading teen community service trips for well over 50 years and offers programs in Asia, Africa, and North and South America. Global Volunteer Network offers a wide variety of volunteer service opportunities through partner organizations in 21 countries.

Other programs and resources include:

Check each program's age requirements carefully. Some organizations require participants to be 18 or older, while others will accept students as young as 13.

If you are considering a volunteer vacation for your teen, here are a few tips and suggestions to keep in mind:

  • Make sure this is something that your teen wants to do. There may be challenges and hardships involved in this type of travel. Enthusiasm and a positive attitude are important part of making volunteer vacations a success.
  • Determine what you can afford to spend and set up a budget for your teen's trip. Make sure to include round-trip airfare and other associated travel expenses, program costs, and extra spending money. Review these with your teen before he or she begins to zero in on favorite programs.
  • Talk with your teen about their reasons for taking a volunteer vacation and what aspects of the trip are particularly appealing to them. Read up on available volunteer vacation opportunities and talk with your teen about what they might see and do on their journey. If there is an application involved, allow your child to do it on their own. It's important for your teen's voice to shine through in the application. In addition, many programs use the application to help them determine if a teen is mature enough to handle the experience.
  • Once your teen has selected one or a small number of programs, ask the provider a few questions. Some of these should include:
    • How long has the organization has been in business and how long has the current management has been in charge of running the program?
    • Ask about the staff at the site your teen has selected. What's the ratio of teens to on-site employees?
    • If individuals must be 18 or older to travel with the organization, find out what percentage of participants are teenagers and whether that number varies significantly by program destination or duration of the trip.
    • Learn more about the background, training and experience of the employees on site. Are they all college graduates, or are they still college students?  Some organizations find that college graduates are better able to manage teens than college students who may behave more like “buddies” than supervisors.
    • How many of the on-site staff have been with the organization for more than a year?
    • Have company employees visited the program site and planned the volunteer activities with the help and support of the local community?
    • What does the organization do to curtail the use of alcohol or illegal drugs? Ask if there a written policy regarding participants caught using alcohol or drugs, and if it has ever been enforced.
    • How are health problems or medical emergencies handled? Is there a doctor or medical practitioner located nearby? How close is the nearest medical facility?
    • If there is a home stay component to the program, how have the home stay families been selected? How many of the home stay families have participated in the program for more than one year?
    • How many hours are actually spent volunteering as part of this program? Time spent in community service can vary widely from program to program. Make sure the program’s commitment to community service is a match with your teen’s expectations.

After talking with each provider, ask if the organization will provide contact information for previous participants in the program. Your teen’s school guidance counselor or college counselor may also be a good resource for program information and reviews and might also be able to put you in touch with other students who have traveled with the organization.

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