By Nancy Taylor
Think of others. Be a role model. Give back to the community. Who does not aspire to achieve these things within our families?
Most of us live in communities where we do not want for much. While our children do catch the occasional glimpse of poverty, in general it is rare for them to have any actual experience with it. No matter how hard we try to impress upon them that they are truly blessed, few children fully appreciate their material gifts. Making sure our kids understand that there are many people in the world with far less than them is very important.
Without a doubt, we all see value in sharing our time and talents with those in the community who are less fortunate than ourselves. As well, love of neighbor is a wonderful virtue to instill in our children. But how do we go about it? Most kids are naturally eager to please and are willing to help when given the opportunity. As parents, we can use this innate altruism to the advantage of our families and communities. All it takes is a little planning and creativity.
We can participate in our communities by helping the elderly or infirmed, keeping tabs on neighbors and friends and lending a hand where necessary. We can volunteer in our churches and synagogues.
But what if we want to do something bigger than that? Many people like the idea of going outside their communities for projects that will make a difference for those less fortunate. Yet, even if you have the inclination to spend Christmas, spring break or a week or more in the summer on a worthwhile project that fosters family togetherness, you may find yourself at a loss as to where to begin.
A family service vacation may be just the thing to fill the bill. More and more families, particularly those with older children, are traveling all over the world, combining service and vacation for mutual benefit, and their efforts are creating a lasting impression for them and the people they aid. Children gain valuable, first-hand work experience and, as an added benefit, are able to learn about different cultures in ways they would never get in the classroom. Parents are given an opportunity to watch their children in action. Seeing their willingness to serve can foster more family togetherness than any conventional vacation will. And communities that rely heavily on volunteer humanitarian efforts benefit in ways that would be impossible for them if no aid were available.
Families who participate in family service vacations are happy with the results. Parents report that their children make friends with local kids, see cultures far different from their own, and have an opportunity to explore foreign countries. Teenagers work alongside their parents and siblings, learning to rely on one another in unique ways. Those overseeing the trips are equally gratified, since work accomplished by volunteers would not otherwise get done.
If you think a volunteer vacation is something you would like to explore, there are several things to think about.
1.) Be sure to take into account the type of service you would like to provide. Organizations have different types of service vacation programs, so it is important to discuss family member expectations and areas of interest. Then choose your organization and program accordingly.
2.) Think about how long your family would like to participate. Vacations can range from several days to a couple of months.
3.) Remember to take into account the ages of your children. Teenagers may like the idea of building homes and shelters or working in a farming community, while younger children may not be ready for such heavy work. Keep in mind that while kids as young as 8 can participate, not every organization has of program availability for younger volunteers. The more time and effort you spend making sure everyone can fully participate, the better your experience will be.
4.) Pick a country that is of interest to you. Volunteer vacations will give every member of the family the unique opportunity to learn the local culture and do a little sightseeing. Although after-hours entertainment costs are not part of most program fees, evenings and weekends are generally available for families to explore their surroundings.
5.) Be sure to take cost into account. Programs range from relatively inexpensive; some Quaker program fees are nominal, to roughly the cost per person of a week at a resort. As well, program fees generally do not include transportation. Although volunteer vacations are tax deductible, the costs can still add up. You might consider fund-raising if you are so inclined. Many programs offer excellent ideas about how to begin.
One of the best places to start looking for a family vacation volunteer program is online. Surf the web to see what is available. Some websites to explore include: www.globalcitizens.org, www.crossculturalsolutions.org, www.vfp.org, www.amigoslink.org, www.habitat.org, www.dosomething.org and www.globeaware.org.
Remember, with a little creativity and spirit of adventure, a volunteer vacation may be the best investment you will ever make in family togetherness.