Doesn't lounging around in a hammock while gazing for hours on end at the dreamy turquoise-painted ocean of an unspoiled tropical island sound realllllly good right about now (especially with an ever-replenished beverage in hand)? It's the kind of half-daydream, half-goal that helps so many of us get through what often seems like a never ending work week, and while it's hard to deny the restorative power of pure, unadulterated relaxation, there's a new kind of vacation that's making seriously notable waves -- voluntourism.
Unlike the kick-back-and-chill vibe that we happily embrace while touring the theme parks and exotic locales of traditional summer vacation destinations, voluntourism entails using precious vacation time – which for some lucky people comes once a year, for others just a few times in the span of a decade – to help others. Sounds lovely in theory, but when push comes to shove, how many of us would willingly jump on that karmically-divine train when we could just unplug from the reality of our daily grind at a luxury resort? (Remarkably, 1.6 million individuals do every single year!)
Voluntourism is about giving back to fellow human beings and/or the environment for a relatively brief but nevertheless beneficial chunk of time. Sometimes, the incredibly busy pace that we maintain day in and day out taxes us to such a degree that we fail to realize that donating even just one or two hours a week to a charitable endeavor can spread sunshine -- not just literally and figuratively but also emotionally and chemically. In fact, multiple studies have attributed altruistic behavior to a deeper sense of inner contentment and overall health along with higher levels of feel-good endorphins, naturally-occuring dopamine and a noticable reduction in blood pressure levels.
Beyond the physical benefit of engaging in a volunteer-themed getaway, there's something to be said for diving head first into a purposeful and incredibly fulfilling, not to mention life-altering, experience that indulges our sense of wanderlust as well as our desire to make a positive impact. Really, it’s all about the inner sense of joy that you can get from doing something for others with no strings attached… and a cool ‘side effect’ is that it boosts your well being, too... kind of sells itself, doesn't it?
HOW MUCH DOES IT COST?
Depending on the organization that you arrange your voluntourism opportunity through (such as a non-profit or a travel agent), your getaway can be as affordable as the cost of a roundtrip international flight or as indulgent as a 5 star hotel stay. EarthBound Expeditions charges between $200 and $500 for ground transportation, accommodations and food, applying part of the money toward programs that benefit local communities, whereas other opportunities typically carry a sticker price of roughly $1000 per week. The very best thing you can do is conduct thorough research well in advance and weigh all your options accordingly.
WHY SHOULD I DO IT?
Have you ever had a fleeting or even recurring desire to experience fulfillment at a deeper level, not only in your career and personal relationships, but also while participating in extracurricular activities? Donating your time while being submersed in a foreign culture can teach you a great deal about yourself and the world, but more importantly, it can often trigger a deeper awareness of the intangible yet weighty things that really make life worth living. It doesn't hurt that you're doing so while soaking up the sights and sounds of a far-off place just like a real adventurer would.
WHAT KIND OF OPPORTUNITIES EXIST?
Protect Earth, Protect Yourself (PEPY) organizes bike trips through Laos and Cambodia, allowing participants to assist in such diverse projects as animal husbandry and aquaculture while I To I Volunteering facilitates global wildlife conservation projects. Or, you might prefer volunteering with the National Park Service, building homes for the less fortunate through Habitat For Humanity’s Global Village experience or chaperoning developmentally challenged adults while they explore the U.S. via Sprout, Inc.’s leadership opportunity. The domestic and international programs are as incredibly diverse as the crystallized structure of newly-formed snowflakes, so seek and ye shall find!
HOW DO I GET THE BALL ROLLING?
Wading through the voluntourism white noise is a lot easier when you focus on the most reliable organizations of the bunch, such as VolunTourism International, One Brick, Global Volunteers, Go Differently or North by North East Tours, for starters. Do your homework, take notes, compare opportunities and never be afraid to ask questions. Working with a non-profit organization such as Planterra is quite possibly the wisest move since charities are typically compelled to make a difference for the greater good rather than for the most substantial profit. Above all, throw yourself into the experience head first and just watch -- you'll have so much fun that you might just tweet your heart out, or at least shout it from the highest rooftop!
Image: USFS Region 5
For more juicy green goodness, follow Elizah via Twitter @elizahleigh