Survive + Thrive

Travelers volunteer and become part of the communities

By Kaitlyn Voyce

From teaching English in Bulgaria to building houses in Iowa or building a school in Nepal or living in a homestay in Peru, travelers have the chance to become a part of the community while on a volunteer trip.

Volunteer trips can last as little as a week, as many alternative spring break programs do. However, there is often the opportunity to commit to a few months or even a year, such as with teaching placements.

STA Travel recently partnered with Planeterra to offer its most comprehensive line of volunteer projects called Travel With Purpose. Trip lengths start at two weeks long. Patrick Evans, the marketing and communications manager for STA Travel, said people can get more out of a trip when they spend more time immersed in specific work or a community.

"It's also really beneficial for the people going because you want to make sure that the people who travel on these trips come away not only feeling like they helped people, but really getting a better understanding of the culture and the community that they were part of for a little while," said Evans.


Many travelers teach abroad. Some organizations, like STA Travel and Boston-based United Planet, offer shorter term placements in after-school programs or orphanages. Other organizations such as WorldTeach and Search Associates place teachers in schools for a year or more.

Cultural Immersion

Many of the programs provide help with transportation logistics and accommodations, typically with homestays. Homestays are often considered one of the best ways for a traveler to become a part of the community where they are volunteering.

"Our quests are very different from other organizations in that ours are very individual. You go over there and you do a homestay. We think that cultural immersion is just as important as the volunteer work you're doing and getting to know your host community," said Sarah Becker, a Latin America program director at United Planet.

Emma Lichtenstein taught English in Ecuador for two years using WorldTeach and other contacts to find her placements. She stayed with a host family for the year she was in Portoviejo.

Lichtenstein said she was reluctant to rely on her host family at first, but they developed a strong bond as time went on and they helped her get through difficult times when she felt lonely or isolated.

"My homestay family was wonderful, and they took me in and treated me like their oldest daughter... I loved being part of a family because I got to learn Spanish and really get to know people, although at times it was frustrating, like it is being part of any family," said Lichtenstein.

Peru 109, an organization based in Vermont that offers opportunities throughout Peru, gives volunteers the option of living in a homestay or at a volunteer group house in Cuzco. The house has a kitchen and other facilities that allow volunteers to live on their own.

Juan Carlos Olivo, the founder of Peru 109, said about 70 percent of people prefer a homestay, but people with dietary restrictions or who want to be more independent prefer staying in the house.

Olivo said there are benefits to both types of accommodations, but the main advantage of staying in the volunteer house is having the freedom to experience other aspects of Peruvian life, including the nightlife. Olivo said it might be difficult to do that living in a homestay because some of the host families in Peru, especially in the mountain towns, can have more conservative ideas about socializing and going out.

Peru 109 has strict drug and alcohol policies, but Olivo realizes that going out with friends and volunteers and meeting younger Peruvians is also an important aspect of a trip.

"For me, these community service projects and traveling to Peru and volunteering, okay, it's a service trip, but still it's a vacation for people.... I want for them to taste what the real Peruvian life is."  

Even if volunteers do not live in a homestay, it is possible to become a part of the community and learn the culture.

Pei Pei Liu, a teacher from Boston, is currently living in Sofia, Bulgaria after finding a job there using Search Associates. Her Bulgarian school has
a mix of international and local teachers.

In addition to getting to know her students and learning from them, Liu takes a Balkan dancing class and will go to restaurants to socialize with Bulgarians.

"It's just fascinating to compare cultures and trade stories, and I like practicing my (extremely poor) Bulgarian with random waiters and salespeople and the moms at the Balkan dance class," Liu said.

Liu said she is learning more about Bulgarian culture than she learned about other cultures when she traveled long-term in the past.

"The difference with this is the experience of living day-to-day. You have a lot more mundane interactions when you live somewhere as opposed to just visiting it for the short term - and it's these mundane interactions that give you more of a feel for the quality of life in a place," Liu said.

Some travelers find that an extended stay is not needed to become a part of the community when volunteering. Brandon Penny, an Emerson College student, participated in the school's Alternative Spring Break program since his freshman year and plans to do it again this spring. The program offers three projects each year in cities or towns in the United States.

Penny traveled to Immokalee, Fla. and stayed at the Immokalee Friendship House, a shelter for migrant farm workers during his freshman year. He also went to Cedar Rapids, Iowa to help rebuild after flooding. Though these trips only lasted a week, Penny said both trips were "eye-opening and extremely educational."

"My favorite part of both trips was being able to completely immerse myself in communities that were completely unfamiliar to me, and unlike anywhere I had ever been before, and understand the issues and conditions there, meet the people who lived there and had suffered poverty and hunger or floods, and to be there to listen to them and do whatever we could short-term to try to help them," Penny said.

Independent vs. Group Projects

Becker said United Planet projects are often independent. There are times when a person will be the only volunteer in a particular town at the time. However, Becker explained that volunteers often take language, cooking or dancing lessons and can meet other volunteers in these classes.

Evans and Olivo also said some of the projects with their organizations can be more independent, but staff members are on hand to support volunteers.

Lichtenstein said there was only one other WorldTeach volunteer in Portoviejo. She said he was important because he was her link to American culture.

Liu said it can be difficult for the American teachers at her school to get to know their Bulgarian colleagues or meet other locals because they have a built-in support system with each other. But Liu said there are positives to having that group available.

"The pros of hanging out with the other American teachers are obviously that you have a nice social network. You all speak the same language, and I think we also share some similar interests and similar personality traits, having all decided to come to a somewhat obscure Eastern European country of our own volition," said Liu.

Ryan Larkin went on an alternative spring break trip to Peru in 2000. He said a few of his friends from school also went, but they made an effort to spend time with other people in the group and local residents.

Larkin said he liked that he had friends to share the experience with but also got to know people from the community where he was volunteering..

"Everyone's experience was different and what they got out of it was different. I think I loved doing it with 20 other people though because you get to talk about the experience and share it with them," said Larkin.

Penny also liked being in a large group. He did not know many other students when he left for the trip, but he found it was helpful to know that everyone was having the same experiences and feelings being out of their comfort zones.

"It's crazy how I didn't know most of them at all before the trip and spend zero time with them after it, but when we do see each other it's like we've always been best friends and I just have this crazy close bond with some of them because of everything we went through that week," Penny said.

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New Perspectives

As Evans said, travelers come away from their volunteer trips feeling like they helped people and also gained a wider view of the world.

Larkin said his alternative spring break trip was one of the things that inspired him to become more involved at his school, become a mentor and study abroad in Australia. After college, he started a career in the travel industry at EF Educational Tours, helping high school students do short-term study abroad trips.

"There's a lot of those epiphanies that you have where you just realize that there's a whole world out there and that everything is not like you thought. That was probably the most amazing part of the trip," Larkin said.

Larkin recently did a volunteer trip to Nepal with Edge of Seven, where he helped build a school. He said it helped him recapture the experiences he had during his alternative spring break trip and the people there reiterated what is most important in life.

"They value things like community and love, friendship, family, and their values and the things that they found important made them just as happy, if not happier, than people that I live around," said Larkin.

Lichtenstein said teaching abroad is unique because it allowed her insight into the culture when she interacted with the students.

"You learn so much about yourself and what you value most, as well as about a particular other culture and the entire world," Lichtenstein said.

Liu said teaching in Sofia has given her a change of pace. She said she has learned about different education systems and has allowed her to gain a better appreciation her personal and work life in both Boston and Sofia.

"I'm having a really good time, both personally and professionally, and at this point I have absolutely no regrets about making the decision to come here. It's great just being in a different country and learning something new every day. It sounds cliché, but it's true," Liu said.

Olivo said anyone can gain a lot from volunteering while traveling as long as they have an open mind.

"It all depends on what you want to do. It all depends on your willingness. It all depends on your ideas, your participation," said Olivo.

Larkin pointed out that it might be hard to adjust to being part of a new community and being immersed in a volunteer project, but it is worth it to take a risk and try something new.

"Just take those chances a couple times and you'll be rewarded tenfold and the things that you think will be the most awkward and the most uncomfortable end up being the best parts of the trip," Larkin said. 


9scOVp this is delisious!

I took several of these volunteer vacations when I was in highschool. They were wonderful experiences and really opened my eyes to the world around me. I haven't taken one in years, but I would love to do it again.

Many many quality potins there.

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