Away from the hectic pace of our everyday lives, any vacation is a chance for families to reconnect. There's no soccer game, no piano recital, no working late, so finally you have that precious day together. Yet, if you really want a meaningful break from your usual schedule, one that might change the way your children view the world, think about a volunteer vacation.
On Volunteer Vacations, kids get the rare opportunity to be immersed in another culture, helping a community build houses or learn English. If hanging in Guatemala or Ghana is a bit too much for your clan, then think about a learning vacation, where you're tracking the whales of British Colombia or involved in an archaeological dig in Colorado. Many of the following organizations feature trips for children ages 8 and up, but be sure to check minimum age.
Crow Canyon Archaeological Center
Two weeks each summer, fortunate families can get their hands dirty while with working archaeologists at Crow Canyon's Family Excavation Program. Set in the high desert country of Cortez, Colo., on the border of Mesa Verde National Park's 14,000 foot peaks, the excavation site was once a Puebloan community occupied between 600 and 1300 A.D. You'll be working at an altitude of 6,200 feet, kneeling on the ground and hauling up buckets of dirt. You'll also get the chance to find pottery shards, turquoise beads and other remnants of this ancient community. The final full day is a tour of Mesa Verde National Park with one of the archaeologists. Lodging on this 110-acre campus is in a Navajo hogan, an eight-sided log cabin that is designed to greet the morning sun.
Known for their exemplary wildlife and nature conservation work, Biosphere Expeditions offers families a variety of options, from weekend tasters to two-week adventures. Work with scientists as they protect the Arabian leopard of Oman, the wolves of Slovakia, the whales of the Azores, and the reef of Honduras. Two-thirds of your proceeds go directly to locals working on the project. There are no age limitations and no experience necessary. All you need is an insatiable curiosity, a compassion for all living things, and the strength to carry out your conviction.
Sierra Club Outings provides volunteer vacations to places that improve our environment. With 90 service trips annually, trips will line up your family with park services to maintain trails, clean up trash and restore woodland areas, such as cleaning trails along the Appalachian Trail. Examples of these outdoor service trips include Independence Pass and Continental Divide Trail Building in Colorado, a Family Fun Trail Work program in Aspen, Colo. And the Multigenerational Wind River Range Restoration project in Wyoming. These trips are typically geared toward families with teens as the experience includes heavy hiking.
Cross-Cultural Solutions is a class act that helped set the standard for volunteer work abroad. The weeklong Insight Abroad program is ideally suited for families, offered during the summer and over school vacation weeks. The program gives your family a chance to experience another culture, such as Morocco, Peru or Costa Rica, while volunteering in orphanages, child care centers and schools but also provides free time to explore the area and relax. Other programs, including a special Teen Volunteer Abroad program for ages 15 to 17, provide longer volunteer opportunities. Depending on your passion, you could be teaching artists how to market their wares in Tanzania, teaching English in China, empowering women in Guatemala, helping with child care in Brazil, or giving a hand to rebuild a community in Peru.
Global Citizens Network
All you have to do is visit the GCN website and you'll instantly see the numerous volunteer opportunities available to families that are currently underway around the world. They need your help building a medical clinic in rural Kenya, constructing a roof for Tibetan refugees in Nepal, weaving in Guatemala, and harvesting wild rice on a Native American reservation in their home state of Minnesota. On many of the trips, you'll be staying with local families, immersed instantly in their culture. The group is known for their keen organizational skills that will quickly allay any uncertainty about going overseas with the family.
Habitat for Humanity
Many of us know the fabulous work Habitat for Humanity does providing homes within their communities, but the organization also offers bigger building programs and works to improve impoverished towns and cities and rebuild after natural disasters, like New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The organization's Global Village trips combine travel with homebuilding. This summer they have trips planned for Cameroon, Malaysia, Paraguay and Romania. Don't worry. You're not going to subject the kids to 12 hours a day on top of a roof. Depending on the length of the trip, most teams spend a few days checking out the region and participating in local cultural activities. Even when working, you'll have plenty of time for rest and free time. No experience is necessary -- all you need is the ability to pick up a hammer and start pounding in some nails.
Earthwatch is not just an outfitter, but a research institute where travelers help support ongoing studies by scientists. More than 4,000 volunteers each year work on over 700 research teams in 49 countries and 18 states. Thus, the list of opportunities covers most interests. Study rhesus monkey feeding behavior in Nepal, map coastal wetlands in the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga, help protect the Pacific grey whales in British Colombia, or excavate mammoths in South Dakota at a site which has become a museum educating 100,000 tourists a year about issues of extinction. The organization also offers special two-week Teen Trips geared to 16- and 17-year olds each summer.