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Volunteer Vacations: Rethinking How We’ll Travel for Good

By Sara Ost, Deputy Editor

It’s a tale as old as Covid: In the throes what has been a seemingly endless pandemic, many of us have sought healthy ways to find even the littlest bit of solace. (Though we’ll be the first to encourage you to forgive yourself the occasional pint of gelato or bottle of Bordeaux.)

By this point, we’ve all traded our favorite meditation apps; go-to yoga moves; deliciously comforting vegetarian dishes. Keep it up, we say. But here’s one more healthful bit of sustainable escape to consider, and that’s the volunteer vacation.

While not a new thing, per se, travel for good is a growing conversation in conscious circles. Case in point: Some weeks back, yours truly was having a heartfelt chat with quarantine friends about new ways to cheer up and remember that this too shall pass. “Let’s plan a vacation for when we’re all able to travel again!” was the verdict.

We rhapsodized about our most intriguing or downright luxurious travel fantasies, the bucket list stuff, from the Seychelles to Scotland. We realized that the simple act of planning a trip, for when it’s safe again and we can pull it off, is just the mental ticket. (Anticipation of a positive event is a proven, medically-supported stress-reliever that goes far beyond travel.)

As we rabbit-holed delightfully down our must-see list, I made a note for this column to consider further. Sustainability is core to Coco Eco values and to you, our cherished readers. So here’s my suggestion. Do plan a trip. It might be a good long stretch before you can go—it may be for all of us. But when you can, why not make it a volunteer vacation?

Turns out, there are dozens upon dozens of wonderfully-run programs around the world. Some are focused on children’s aid, some on animal welfare, some on environmental programs (count ocean advocacy a favorite of mine). And many more beyond. We’ve dug in and done some research. You may be surprised to know that many of these programs have already adapted for 2021 in order to accommodate volunteers safely.

A little confession: In this chat with friends, one said, “Giving really is living, you know?” They giggled self-consciously, not meaning to be trite. But we all felt what they meant. One of the best ways to feel more alive and positive in your place in the world is to give back.

Here are a few conscious adventures we can’t wait to experience ourselves. In the meantime, we’re just engaging in the simple, inspiring act of planning; it’s a healthy thing.

If you aren’t sure where to start, this really is the “HQ.” International Volunteers are professionally run and have literally dozens of opportunities for you to consider. As one of the originals in this realm, you’ll find there is something for everyone of every stripe. It’s certainly a good place to surf around a bit to inform yourself about volunteer vacationing. The focus is on safety, affordability, and real impact.

As they put it: “We believe in a future where any traveler, anywhere in the world is empowered to make a meaningful difference in the community they are visiting, and we take pride in making this happen.”

Thailand, Nepal, India, Costa Rica, perhaps Peru?

Another wonderful resource, Volunteering Solutions lists 13 fantastic locations around the world for you to choose from.

Just take a peek:

A scene from the Elephant Camp Travel program.

What could be better than working with elephants? These massive, sensitive creatures need our help. We were heartened to learn that traditional beach travel, while still popular in Thailand, isn’t the only vacation capturing the hearts of visitors. On the Elephant Camp Project, the most well-established, you’ll interact with these incredible animals right up close.

Working with children in Nepal

While Nepal is more famously known for the mountaineering feats of risk-thirsty adventurers, there are other opportunities to immerse yourself in a beautiful culture while at the same time giving back. Volunteering Solutions has a well-respected summer program very much worth exploring.

Ocean Conservation

You can help study sharks and contribute to scientific research in Palau, among many other places globally.

Our friends at Oceanic Society recommend six volunteer vacation programs, including shark conservation. Sharks are an ancient and vital member of our global ecosystem, and deserve our support (nothing like overcoming a very common fear we humans have, while you’re at it!).

Coral Reef Conservation

If you’re not quite ready for that, look into Puerto Rico, where you can participate in coral reef research.

All images courtesy of the cited organizations.


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