Nobody wants to raise spoiled, entitled kids with no sense of empathy, or any idea of how lucky they are to live a life revolving around happy school days, a lovely home and – if you’re living here in the UAE – world travel at their finger tips. And it’s exactly this desire to travel and immerse in another culture that’s presenting families with the most exciting, and potentially life-changing, opportunity to do something really useful – and to give back – with their next holiday.
Globe Aware is a non-profit organisation that plans volunteer vacations for families around the world, helping to rebuild remote communities, install clean water sources, repair roads and teach languages in some of the poorest villages, towns and cities on earth. This means children experiencing these holidays are exposed to global issues they might only learn about in the classroom.
“Few opportunities in life offer the ability to experience another culture at the same time as serving in a meaningful way and we have definitely seen an increase in young families taking volunteer vacations,” says Globe Aware’s director of communications Shanti Shahani. “We are becoming more adventurous in our travel as parents, and many families are recognising how important it is for our children to be compassionate global citizens, to appreciate their surroundings and develop an interest in helping those around them. Words and values like tolerance, inclusivity, diversity and kindness are more important now than they have been before in our generation.”
Trips vary, depending on which provider you choose, but Globe Aware cites one week as the perfect length of time for families to volunteer. It also gives you the option to enjoy travelling and sightseeing at your chosen destination. Once you’ve decided where you’d like to go, they’ll put together an itinerary – including accommodation, guides and transfers – based around the ages of your children and the kinds of activities you’d like to get involved in, or the skills you think you can offer.
“Projects are adapted to volunteers and we always make a point of explaining to children why what they are doing is important,” Shahani explains. “We make sure the activities are safe and interesting, so a child may be able to help plant a tree, and they can also provide unparalleled help in teaching English as a Second Language through songs and games to kids their own age.
“This language instruction also provides future job opportunities for children in the communities Globe Aware serves,” says Shahani.
One Dubai-based family recently travelled to Siem Reap in Cambodia to visit friends who had moved there for a family gap year. Before they left, they launched a campaign at their school in Dubai Sports City, asking parents to donate toothbrushes and toothpaste for a local village school. Mum Louise Reynolds explains: “When we travel, we like to take the opportunity to teach Alula and Lana [her children] about other cultures and ways of living, hopefully instilling a bit of empathy and the desire to help others when possible.
“In Sri Lanka we took tuk-tuks into poor communities so that the girls could give pencils, notebooks and soft toys to children and were invited into a lovely family’s home as a thank you,” Reynolds recounts. “It was good for the girls to see that, although the family really had nothing, they were more than willing to share what they had with us.”The Reynolds family visited the Kompheim Community School, run by local non-governmental organisation Husk, which provides English language lessons to village children, who earn “Husk dollars” for attending the school. They can then spend those “dollars” at the school shop, where the toothbrushes and toothpaste were donated. Education is recognised as a major key in breaking the poverty cycle for future generations and, sadly, less than 30 percent of Cambodian children will complete primary school, meaning that encouraging this attendance is key.
“We saw a few schools while we were there and the girls seemed quite surprised that the government school didn’t have four walls and really was just a bit of a shack. They wondered what would happen to the kids and their work if it rained!”
Overall, however, the family really enjoyed their time in Cambodia. “But, probably the biggest thing they’ve come away with is the absolute shock that people over there fry and eat bugs. I tried bribery, but they were adamant they weren’t going to sample any!” laughs Reynolds, who also tells us she’s already looking into their next volunteer trip, helping to rebuild schools in Kathmandu, Nepal, which were destroyed after the 2015 earthquake.
Aside from India and the Far East, other popular locations for volunteer travel are Costa Rica, Mexico and Guatemala. But researching before you book is crucial, as Shahani points out. “Make sure you go with a registered non-profit organisation so there’s transparency about exactly how your money will be spent. Ask if they are a member of the International Volunteer Programs Association and talk to past volunteers.”
It’s also important to remember that projects shouldn’t take work away from local people and should be fulfilling a genuine need in a community. And families with young children should think about the overall travel time to get to their chosen destination and ensure they have all the relevant vaccinations.
“I would say there is no better way to truly immerse yourself than to work alongside members of the community as equals, in projects that are important to them, to be able to truly appreciate the beauties and challenges of another culture,” Shahani adds.
“No other tourist experience can truly provide that and being able to experience that with your family is an opportunity comparable to none.”