Travel Tips

Volunteering in South Africa & How to Make a Family Voluntourism Vacation

Locations in this article:  Cape Town, South Africa

Inspired by her 42-day, around-the-world trip with four children under the age of 10, you chose Marie LeRose as our contributor contest winner for 2012. This summer Marie and her family went on another inspiring trip to South Africa. Yes, they went on a safari, but together as a family they decided to do a whole lot more.

Yup, I know what you are thinking…volunteering in Africa? What happened to sleeping in luxury tents, viewing elephants slopping around in watering holes, and sipping champagne in balloon rides above herds of migrating wildebeests? When I was planning our summer vacation to South Africa and Zimbabwe, I had the same visions…and I found it extremely easy to get swept away with all the possibilities for our “Out of Africa experience”….mobile safaris, tracking animal prints in the dirt, and sipping sundowners out in the bush looking for lions. But as I did the research, there were inspirational stories of local people running organizations, making a difference in the lives of children who come from abject poverty, or who have lost their parents to AIDS, or who without guidance, will succumb to the pressures of joining the local gangs.

Quickly I realized that supporting these organizations, and assisting them with their mission, would not only have an impact on the local children….but this personal interaction would provide my four children with a “real” out of Africa experience.

Uthando, which means love in South Africa, is an organization that supports grassroots projects around Cape Town. One of their projects, The Greater Commission United (GCU) has a soccer academy that supports over 250 boys from the local township, and provides them with a safe place to go after school, coaches to teach soccer, and distractions to keep them away from the influence of the gangs and drugs.

Since our children are avid soccer players, this was a project that they could relate to, be passionate about and experience a first-hand view of the daily lives of these children. Lucky for us, a friend works for Warrior Sports and they learned about our desire to support this organization and shipped us 200 soccer balls to donate to the GCU. If you think you have trouble packing….try packing 200 soccer balls without incurring excess baggage fees!

It is true that soccer…aka “futbol” is the universal language around the world, and our children had an amazing afternoon playing and training with these boys. And when we learned that there is on average of 1 toilet per 100 people in the local township….our pre-teens found new tolerance for sharing a bathroom with their sibling!

The next destination was Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where the falls are claimed to be twice the height of Niagara Falls in the United States. Rose of Charity Orphanage was started by local people to help the deprived children in the community. The Orphanage supports over 60 children, most of who have lost their parents to AIDS, and rely on the orphanage for food, supplies, educational assistance and moral support. Again, we thought soccer jerseys and soccer balls, but quickly realized that they were in dire need of the most basic of items, deodorant, diapers, formula, hygiene products, etc.

Our children recruited friends and their lacrosse team and quickly held a lemonade sale and raised over $100, we received donations of hair supplies, toothbrushes and toothpaste, purchased deodorant, collected clothes and old soccer jerseys. Need I mention how full our suitcases now were?

Whenever you volunteer, whether at home or abroad, you never really know how you will be received, or what the experience will be like, or whether it will be meaningful for your family or for the organization that you are trying to support. But when our taxi pulled down the dusty road to the driveway of the Rose of Charity Orphanage, and we were greeted with a welcoming committee of singing children in their Sunday clothes, we knew this was going to be a special day. When the simple gift of toothbrushes and toothpaste bring smiles to a child’s face, and when teenage boys immediately change into previously worn soccer uniforms, and a $2 bottle of bubbles brings hours of joy, and your 12-year old son, who normally is addicted to soccer and Xbox, says this was the best day of his life ….you know you are having the “Out of Africa” experience that is not published in brochures or sold by travel agents.

So how can you incorporate voluntourism into your next vacation, whether locally or abroad?

  1. Use the web to search for companies that can connect you with volunteer projects. GoPhilanthropic, Destination4Good are just an example.

  2. Contact your hotel concierge and ask what local organizations might need assistance.

  3. Think about friends and neighbors who work for companies that could donate products.

  4. Involve your children – save money, have lemonade sales, host a garage sale, collect soccer jerseys or gently used clothing or shoes.

For more volunteer travel ideas, check out:

By Marie LeRose for