The only thing better than taking a trip is the chance to do something good while you’re out of town, or even out of the country. There are a lot of opportunities to turn a vacation into something more, from transporting rescue dogs, to taking supplies to shelters and food kitchens, to getting involved in trail clearing projects or emergency relief at your destination.
The most important thing is to plan ahead so that your volunteer efforts don’t come as a surprise—while everyone likes extra help, some organizations require information or applications beforehand, so make sure you do your research first.
So how do you turn trips into positive helping experiences?
Do what you love
For example, I work with animal rescue organizations in Pittsburgh, and we often hear of shelters in southern states that are overcrowded, or that are desperately looking for ways to transport animals up north where there is more opportunity for them to get adopted. Since my sister and I drive down to visit our dad in North Carolina at least a couple of times a year, we’ve turned these into rescue missions as well as quality family time. Admittedly, dad was a little surprised the time we brought 11 puppies to stay overnight so we could get an early start in the morning, but he’s now become our biggest supporter.
There are companies that mesh vacations with volunteering, and if you decide to go this route, make sure you check that the organization arranging your trip or volunteer experience is legitimate. Charity Navigator is a good place to check bonafides, as is www.give.org, the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance.
Find out what’s required
Depending on what you’re doing or where you’re visiting, there might be special requirements. For example, if you’re traveling to the Caribbean and want to help with hurricane relief, you may need to get a tetanus shot or other immunizations. If you’re transporting dogs over state lines or from other countries, you’ll have to have the proper paperwork, including vet certificates. If you’re volunteering to work in a food kitchen, know that there are age limits on who can work in a warehouse, as well as a specific dress code to meet with safety and sanitation rules. The easiest way to find this out is to call the people in charge, or check out an organization’s website where rules for volunteers are often listed.
Give as much advance notice as possible
It’s wonderful that you want to help, but just dropping in and asking for something to do sometimes creates more of a problem for the people you want to help. If they’re already dealing with people displaced during an emergency, for example, more people showing up at the door, even well-intentioned, isn’t a good thing. If you get in touch early, they may be able to direct you to a place, such as a shelter, where you can really help and they’ll be happy to have the extra hands. And please be patient—many nonprofit organizations are understaffed, so they may not get back to you immediately.
If you make a commitment, stick to it
Sure, you were filled with good intentions when you offered to volunteer, but a long plane flight, lost luggage and cranky kids may make you feel like you just want to lie on the beach instead of stocking food bank shelves. While this is understandable, it’s also not an option if you’re scheduled to help—if you don’t go, no one else may take your place. So show up and do a great job, and I guarantee that you’ll feel better. You might even forget about that missing suitcase.
Have you ever volunteered while on vacation?
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