Travel News

Taking the Kids: Family Voluntourism

Locations in this article:  Denver, CO

familyhouseCathy Denious and her 17-year-old daughter, Nancy, were thigh-deep in hot, sticky mud, but this wasn’t some exotic spa treatment.

They were in a small Honduran village shoveling mud out of a pit to make adobe bricks.

And when they weren’t making bricks, they were painting a day care center.

“It was very, very hard work,” said Denious, who is from Bloomfield Hills, Mich., and she had never done anything like this before. Some vacation.

The pair was at the work site by 7:30 a.m. and couldn’t even look forward to a hot shower at the end of the day. Their bare bones hotel had no hot water. And they were paying as much for the privilege as for any luxury resort – more than $2,000 a person plus airfare – but mother and daughter agreed that it was worth every penny.

“When helping people, you just feel different,” explained Nancy Denious. “I could have worked for more days!”

The Deniouses had foregone their customary school break vacation, joining forces with three other moms and teens from their suburban community volunteering under the auspices of a Denver-based program called i-to-i (, that, this year, will send more than 5,000 volunteers to 35 countries.

“People are not doing this for a cheap vacation,” says spokesperson Amy Kaplan. “They tell us they want helping others to become a way of life.”

Some, like the Deniouses, go for a week: Others sign on for much longer, often bunking with a local family, squeezing in sightseeing when they can. They teach kids English in Central America through programs like Cross-Cultural Solutions ( and Ambassadors for Children (, do research on migrating Grey Whales in the Pacific Ocean with the Earthwatch Institute (, build houses in Mississippi with Habitat for Humanity ( and repair trails in New Hampshire with the Appalachian Mountain Club (

“Our family likes to do stuff, not just sit around on the beach,” explains Chicagoan Rose Thomas, whose three college-age daughters will be joining her and her husband, Andy, on a Habitat for Humanity project in Mississippi this spring, just after they celebrate one daughter’s graduation. The parent-child dynamic shifts too, she explains, as everyone learns new skills together. (Ready to roof a house?) “You feel such a sense of accomplishment when you leave,” she said, “And you go home with a tan!”

What makes them do it? Maybe it’s seeing the relentless images of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina or the tsunami in Indonesia. Maybe it’s the example being set by stars like Oprah Winfrey, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Maybe it’s the growing concern over the environment. One mom told me that her family volunteered in Guatemala because her child had been adopted there. For others, it’s simply the desire to share new experiences with nearly grown kids.

For example, last year, Mindy Sink and her daughter, Caroline, from Treasure Island, Fla., volunteered in Kenya working with children to celebrate Mindy’s 60th birthday and Caroline’s college graduation. “We wanted to celebrate in a meaningful way,” Mindy explained. “It was one of the single best travel experiences of my life and to be able to do this with my daughter made it even more special. We’ll both have the memories forever.”

“There’s nothing like it,” said Raul Ortega, who, this month, will lead a group of Connecticut teens, including his daughter Rae and my daughter Melanie, on a trip to Ecuador to complete a building project with a group from our community ( “Being a refugee from Cuba and having received help from many people, giving back has special meaning,” he explained.

Whatever the motivation, using vacation time to help those less fortunate or to help the environment clearly has struck a chord with American families. The National Leisure Travel Monitor, an annual survey of the travel habits, preferences and intentions of active leisure travelers conducted by Yesawich, Pepperdine, Brown and Russell and Yankelovich Partners, indicates that as many as 5 million households took some sort of volunteer vacation last year to support a humanitarian cause or help people in need. “This is the first time we measured this phenomenon and were surprised by how large the number was,” said Peter Yesawich.

At the same time, one-quarter of travelers surveyed by the Travel Industry Association said they were more interested in taking a volunteer or service-based vacation. (Check the Website for the International Volunteer Programs Association, for an extensive database of opportunities abroad and to see if part of the trip may be tax deductible.)

Urged on by employees, Travelocity ( now has partnered with several nonprofits to facilitate such trips in the United States and abroad, even offering $5,000 Change Ambassador grants to cover costs.

“Travelers want an authentic experience,” observes Travelocity’s Amy Ziff, who spent part of her honeymoon volunteering in an orphanage in Africa. “You come back more rested and rejuvenated than from another trip and you appreciate your own circumstances more.”

Ziff adds that interest has been phenomenal in the program. “This is tapping into being part of the solution, not the problem,” she says.

Interest from families is so great that some organizations like Earthwatch and The Sierra Club ( offer special service trips designed for families and I-to-I travel has welcomed children as young as eight. This summer, Continental Divide Alliance ( and Coleman will offer family volunteer programs on the Continental Divide Trail in New Mexico, Colorado and Montana for kids over 10.

“The age difference becomes irrelevant,” said Zoe Gamble, who helped lead a family Earthwatch expedition monitoring the grey whales. “On one occasion, a group of mischievous harbor porpoises surrounded our kayaks and it was impossible to tell who was more excited—the adults or the kids.”

“Go do it,” urges Mindy Sink. “Step out of the box. We can only make a difference one person at a time.”

By Eileen Ogintz.

For more Taking the Kids, visit, where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments.


For more information on volunteer trips, visit the Voluntourism section.

To learn about traveling responsibly, check out our Responsible Travel section.

Previously by Eileen Ogintz on

Traveling with Tweens

Taking the Kids: How to Make Sure Mom Gets a Break on Vacation