When I was in school the teacher would ask pupils to write about their summer holidays as soon as lessons restarted in September. I always managed to fill a few exercise book pages writing about rock pools and crabbing on my family’s beach breaks. Similarly, I reckon that the children who go on a family volunteering holiday will have no trouble in writing a long essay recounting their incredible experiences and anecdotes.
Giving up your free time to undertake community work elsewhere in the world is not a new idea. Gap year and VSO programmes have been offered for decades. But I’d not heard of families volunteering together before.
Volunteering Journeys has introduced a programme of family friendly volunteering holidays designed for groups with under 18 year-olds, who want to immerse themselves in the local life and culture of the destinations they visit. The organisation can offer placements in South Africa, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Thailand. I spoke with founder Ridhi Patel. Her voice was filled passion and enthusiasm for her projects.
“If families volunteer in South Africa,” Ridhi told me, “they could get involved in a community project near Kruger National Park and there you’ll help a local organisation with education, sports and women’s projects.
Ridhi added, “Volunteers can enjoy a guided family camping trip in the National Park where they’ll get to see the big five African wild animals. There’s also a conservation project where volunteers drive through the park in a 4×4 vehicle in order to identify birds, plants, trees and to track animals. That’s better suited to families with children aged over 14.” Any family volunteering in South Africa can easily add additional Cape Town, beach or wine country trips to their free time, she promised.
I wanted to know what was on offer in Kerala, a region of India that I have seen publicised often recently. “Our programmes involve childcare, education and sports coaching as well as school renovation,” said Ridhi. Volunteering Journeys do recognise that there needs to be a holiday element. “At the weekend you could travel to a tea plantation, travel on a houseboat or visit the beaches,” Ridhi told me, before she launched into more opportunities elsewhere in the sub continent.
“In Nepal you’d help host families with farm work such as milking cows and planting crops. You can also volunteer in local schools teaching English and helping with music or art classes.” Again, there are spare time activities on offer. “You could take a city tour or visit the jungle and view the elephants or ride them. There is amazing hiking available too and the routes take in many waterfalls.”
It seems that working with elephants is a popular activity. “In Thailand you can volunteer in an elephant sanctuary – feeding and bathing them,” says Ridhi. Wildlife lovers might want to consider opportunities in Sri Lanka too. “We have projects helping monitor sea turtle nesting sites and a hatchery,” Ridhi enthused. That’s a popular family pick. “Kids absolutely love this programme because they get to release the turtles in the night. It’s quite fun for them,” she said, adding, “You would be close to the sea and there are excellent beaches to enjoy nearby.”
Ridhi told me that many families found volunteering a good way to come together and the experience builds bonds. It’s really all about the kids’ education. “They feel a part of another community and learn about the world,” she says. And children often enjoy the volunteering experience even more than their parents. “If they are working in a school, the children get to see kids in other schools and youngsters of their own age group. They also see how different schools are elsewhere in the world. They can sometimes feel quite lucky to have what they have.”
Ridhi says that the programmes are tailored to the age range of the participating families and there’s more free time if the kids are younger. So what about safety?
“One of the key priorities for our volunteering holidays for families is to have them fairly centrally located for amenities and hospitals and emergency services. Health matters are discussed with families before they come out,” says Ridhi.
Although you are volunteering, there is a charge, which Ridhi says is comparable to a package holiday. Rates start at £499 for one week, up to £649 for two weeks. You’d also need to fund your own flights but the organisation can meet you at the airport and offer a local orientation session. Food is included in most destinations and the organisers can arrange activities and cultural experiences. Volunteering Journeys can offer experiences for families with children aged four and above. And for teenagers over 16 years of age, the residential trips can count towards the Duke of Edinburgh Gold award scheme.
You can find out more and apply online at volunteeringjourneys.com. Just make sure the kids have a big, new exercise book in time for their return to school!