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Volunteer tourism: Making a difference on your next vacation

Dec 2, 2011, 11:11 a.m.

It's the first day of school. A class of 30, seven-year old Ecuadorian students who speak only Spanish are eagerly awaiting their first English lesson. And you're their new teacher. No, this isn't the Peace Corps -- it's a volunteer tourism (voluntourism) program for older adults.

Voluntourism is increasingly popular among older Americans. From teaching English in schools to preserving endangered wildlife habitats, volunteering in a foreign country is a unique way to gain a greater appreciation for the local culture while using your skills to give back.

Trips can range from two weeks to several months, depending on the project assignment. Many programs are specially tailored to older adults, and combine volunteer activities with weekend excursions to traditional tourist destinations in the country -- giving participants the best of both worlds.

Can you see yourself teaching English in a classroom in rural Ecuador? Counting sea turtles on the beaches of Sri Lanka? Bringing medical supplies to a clinic in Tanzania? Here's what to know before you leave home.

What type of voluntourism program is right for me?

Many programs offer both short and long-term options. With many older adults either partially or fully retired, a longer program is a wonderful opportunity to build a meaningful partnership with the local community. However, if you're used to working in an office, teaching school every day for a month can be a big change. Talk to your program coordinator to be sure that you are adequately prepared for the experience and that the volunteer work you'll be doing is a good fit for your interests and skills.

Why pay to volunteer?

Many programs charge a flat volunteer fee, which varies depending on the organization with which you volunteer and how long you will be overseas. Fees typically cover the cost of your stay, including lodging, meals and in-country transportation. An additional portion typically goes directly to the organization's in-field expenses, such as funding medical supplies for a health clinic or reading materials for a school. That's also one of the most exciting parts of voluntourism -- you can see first-hand exactly how your "donation" makes a difference for the community. If you have questions about how your fees will be used, ask to see the group's accounting information; reputable groups will post a breakdown of program fees on the website.

How do I know if a volunteer project is actually "doing good" for the community?

Gauging a volunteer project's impact on a community can be difficult, especially if you're several continents away. For candid feedback, ask the organization to put you in touch with previous volunteers, or check online forums like IgoUgo.com and TripAdvisor.com. Choose projects that are self-sustaining rather than those that create dependency. Do the project leaders speak the local language? Does the partnership empower the local community? This is especially important for long-term volunteer assignments. For example, a few weeks teaching English at a school is a great experience, but if you'll be in the community for a month or more, look for projects that also connect you with the school leadership. Working with local teachers to build an English curriculum will ensure that the lessons you teach last long after you leave.

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