Summer is coming and it’s time to start planning your family vacation. If you’re tired of the same old camping or beach trip and looking for something fresh, consider taking a volunteer vacation this year! Family volunteer vacations offer the opportunity to explore a new territory while giving back to the community and teaching the kiddos a thing or two about public service while you’re at it. They’re a fantastic in situ learning opportunity that provides quality family bonding, a chance to acquire new skills, and a whole lot of fun too! Here are some of our favorite volunteer vacation ideas!

What Is a Volunteer Vacation?

“Volunteer vacation” is an umbrella term for any trip that includes some kind of community service. This could be a mission trip with your church, a trip to Costa Rica to work on an eco-farm, or a road trip to Washington, DC to march for a cause you believe in. The options range from teen service trips with all-inclusive organizations to DIY family road trips with a purpose.

10 Best Family Volunteer Vacations in Arkansas and Beyond

man in blue crew neck t-shirt smiling beside two children with face paint on a volunteer vacation

You’re probably conjuring up ideas of working with endangered animals in South Africa or orphans in Guatemala when you think of a volunteer trip, but you don’t have to go across the world or work with vulnerable populations to give back. That’s the right choice for some families, but not for all. There are tons of ways to provide a service while traveling. Let’s find the perfect volunteer vacation for your crew!

1. Trail Maintenance at Your State Parks

Arkansas has 52 state parks, and almost all of them have a trail system. Trail work is often done by volunteer crews, and you can easily join one. Load up your camping gear and spend your vacation hiking in your favorite Arkansas parks while devoting a few hours a day to trail maintenance and trash pickup. Your family or business may even be able to adopt a trail.

The Arkansas State Parks system has a program called 100 hours of Centennial Service where they offer a service log to volunteers, encouraging groups to get 100 hours in. You’ll even get rewards along the way for hitting milestones! You don’t need any prior trail experience. Park service personnel will teach you everything you need to know! Click here to find out more about volunteering for our Arkansas state parks!

If you want to take your trip to a bigger destination, the Pacific Northwest Trail Association, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, and the US Forest Service all have volunteer trail maintenance programs! Volunteer opportunities range from helping with trash cleanup to training to be a crew leader for other service trip participants.

Check out the American Hiking Society for even more opportunities!

2. Day Trip to the Local Food Bank

Not all vacations have to be big. Sometimes a day away is all you need, especially if that day is filled with purpose. Call your local homeless shelter or food bank and get a list of needed items. Go shopping with your family, and then spend the afternoon stocking the pantry. If the organization allows it, offer to cook a meal for the residents and enjoy dinner with them. A few of your extra dollars go a long way with this volunteer opportunity.

If you’re taking a road trip this year, consider stopping into a local non-profit organization along your route and seeing if there’s anything you can do for them. It’s a great way to learn about the local communities and needs across our country.

3. A Church Mission Trip

Summer is mission trip season for local religious affiliations. From large congregations to small country churches, teams all over Arkansas are organized for trips focused on evangelism, orphan care, education, medical camps, and summer camps for kids. These trips generally work with a partner religious group on the ground in an underserved destination.

Examples include installing plumbing in low-income homes in Kentucky, building churches in Peru, or delivering food to widows and orphans in Guatemala. Obviously, when traveling with a church group, there will be a religious element to these trips. They are not strictly volunteer-based, so that is something you’ll need to consider. Group prayer meetings, bible study, and evangelism are often part of the requirements.

4. WorkAway Trip

WorkAway is a legend in the arena of working vacations. It’s been around a long time, and has a good reputation, as long as you vet your opportunities well. The platform lists places where you can exchange a few hours of work a day for free accommodation and sometimes meals. The work is generally light and usually involves eco-farming, tourism, or animal care.

WorkAway opportunities include exploring the joys of Napa Valley by volunteering to tend vines in a local vineyard, helping build a nature reserve, or working at the front desk of a surfing hostel. There is a yearly fee for utilizing the WorkAway platform, and you’ll have to choose jobs carefully that allow children on-site if you plan to travel with your kids.

5. Idealist

Idealist is a large site that offers volunteer jobs with non-profits all over the world. They have both short and long-term volunteer opportunities. The work demands can be a bit higher on this platform, but it’s an affordable volunteer abroad solution for those looking for a trip with a purpose. If you’re considering a longer trip abroad, this is a good place to look for well-respected and sometimes even paid non-profit jobs.

6. International Service Trip Through a Specialized Travel Agency

When you think of a typical volunteer vacation, this is probably where your mind goes. There are many travel agencies out there that offer fully guided and organized service trips, including International Volunteer Headquarters (IVHQ). IVHQ offers cost-effective travel experiences that focus on community development and environmental sustainability. Other great options include Sierra Club Outings, GoAbroad, Volunteer World, and Go Overseas.

While each of these companies has a slightly different focus, most work with local non-profit agencies in long-term partnerships. You’ll join a team of volunteers on a set start date and be given some training in the expectations of the organization. The agency will help you file all necessary paperwork, hire the guides and transport for your trip, and secure your housing. They’ll also design a trip itinerary that fits the skills and desires of your work party. All you have to do is pack a cooperative spirit!

A family volunteer vacation with one of these organizations could be working with endangered sea turtles in Costa Rica, securing elephant welfare in Sri Lanka, or teaching English in an Ecuador volunteer program! While they can be pricey, these are fantastic volunteer travel opportunities that require little to no planning on your part.

7. Animal Rescue Trip

While exotic animals like turtles and elephants get most of the international attention, some of the most endangered species are city-dwelling dogs and domestic animals. Love Volunteers offers a trip to The Sanctuary— a mother/daughter organization in Buenos Aires, Argentina that was founded to offer care for mistreated and abused animals. Their 150+ residents include horses, dogs, pigs, and goats, among others. Volunteers will help with medical rehabilitation, animal feeding time, and grooming.

8. Do-Gooder DIY

Any vacation can present an outstanding volunteer travel opportunity if you keep your eyes open. As mentioned earlier, when traveling through a new town, pop into a church or homeless shelter and see if they need anything. If you can, donate your nice, new clothing to a school or shelter at the end of your vacation. When researching your travel destination, you’ll be looking at tourism websites and city forums anyway, so keep an eye out for community events like food drives, cleanup days, or park maintenance days.

9. Education Trips

If your passion is learning, then you need to sign up for a trip with Maximo Nivel. It’s the most highly rated volunteer travel organization of its kind in Central and South America. MN focuses on educational travel and study abroad in the fields of environmental sustainability, community development, and climate change. They offer Amazon conservation projects, medical and dental trips, eco-agricultural learning trips, and cultural immersion trips visiting indigenous populations. These trips are fantastic educational opportunities for families.

10. Housesitting

Housesitting is a fantastic way to travel cheaply and help out another family. Through awesome forums like Trusted Housesitters, you can find families that are looking for trustworthy people to watch over their homes and pets while they take a holiday. My husband and I have gotten to stay in very nice homes in Edinburgh, Scotland; Lyon, France; and London while housesitting.

Though you should properly vet and read each job, most of them have few responsibilities. You just need to feed the pets, offer them love, and keep the house locked up. You usually have plenty of time to explore the neighborhood and nearby cities. By exchanging a few minutes a day doing basic chores, you get free vacation accommodation, a pet to love on, and the joy of helping out another family.

Important Considerations for Volunteer Vacations

When considering a volunteer opportunity, it’s important to check your priorities. Not all opportunities are appropriate for families. Not all are appropriate for those with no experience, and all should be chosen carefully according to your passion and willingness to serve. Charity begins in the heart, so if you don’t have a passion for it, leave it to someone else.

A Personal Note: I’ve volunteered with dozens of non-profit organizations at this point, everything from religious missions to coordinating international volunteer teams in an active war zone, and here’s what I can tell you. Not all organizations are ethical, and not all volunteers are necessary. Please do your research on Charity Navigator or Global Giving to see how the organization spends its donations. Ensure that they are working with locals and for locals, not imposing their own beliefs on the area. That means there should be locals on staff and helping to make all major decisions.

Please also consider that not all volunteering is actually helpful. I know that sounds crazy because you’re trying to do a good thing, but it’s true. Many organizations accept volunteers because it comes with a big paycheck. You pay to go and stay there, and they need the money. What they don’t need is a group of unskilled people who aren’t serious about the job, have no passion for the project, don’t understand the culture, and are more of a hindrance than a help.

If you decide to go on a volunteer trip, please do your research. Prepare yourself for the culture. Ask questions to your host organizations. Read When Helping Hurts and at least one book on the culture of your intended trip. The partner organization will usually have some suggested reading. Make sure that you aren’t taking away work from locals who could do it faster and better. The goal is mutual growth and outcomes for both parties.

How to Choose a Volunteer Trip

person holding gray and black turtle on beach during daytime in a bowl with ocean in the background

Aside from ethics, here are a few things to consider when choosing a trip and how to choose an organization that will work for your family.

  • Decide how much time and effort you want to dedicate to volunteering on your trip. There are volunteer trips, and then there are voluntourism trips. There’s nothing wrong with either, but you need to be clear about your expectations.
  • Research the ethics of any non-profit you choose to work with.
  • Read reviews from prior volunteers and workers to get a better idea of what you’re getting yourself into.
  • Start small. You can always plan a more intensive volunteer trip after you get your feet wet.
  • Does the timing work? Some projects are seasonal or dependent on local events.
  • What are your interests? You want to choose something that brings purpose and value to your life.
  • What is your skill set? You will definitely learn new ones on the field, and in some volunteer opportunities, you don’t need any. However, if you’re working with developing communities or vulnerable populations, consider your skill level. Remember, you want to be a help, not a hindrance.
  • The location is important too, especially for a voluntourism trip. Is it somewhere you enjoy spending time or think that your family will enjoy?
  • Your budget- You will typically pay for volunteering opportunities. It sounds counterintuitive at first, but the money is used to house and feed volunteers, for the salary of paid workers, and for any materials you may need for projects.

Post Trip Care

After an intense volunteering stint (orphanages, homeless shelters, etc.), you may need to look after your emotional well-being upon returning. You will feel some survivor’s guilt when you enter your nice home, with all your belongings. Many travelers feel the urge to sell everything, quit their jobs, and move away to help permanently. It’s best practice not to make any big decisions in the first six weeks after coming home. Some people are meant to work internationally for the long run but not many. Your feelings will change as you get back to your routine.

However, to make your impact lasting, channel that new-found charisma into local volunteering! There are people and animals and environmental causes near you that need your help on a daily basis! Do some journaling to process your feelings, and have a family meeting about one week after returning home to see how everyone is doing. Others in your life won’t understand your newfound passion or the intense journey you took. Make sure you’re processing it together as a family unit.

Time to Book Your Volunteer Vacation!

That’s a wrap, folks! That’s all you need to know about volunteer vacations. I hope you found something on the list that interests you and will work for your family. Remember to consider local organizations like your Rotary Club, the local branch of Habitat for Humanity, and Big Brothers Big Sisters when planning your trip. Volunteer opportunities are everywhere!

For more family fun this summer, check out our list of the best campsites in Arkansas and snag your spot next to a pristine lake or babbling river!

Memorial Day is coming fast, and that means the amusement and water parks will be opening! Here are our recommendations for the best family fun parks in Arkansas.

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