A volunteer vacation is a great way to see the world and leave it in a better place – while making some great friends along the way.
Alistair Cotton / 123RF Photo
Remember when we were kids and our choices for vacation tended to be camping or Disneyland? Thanks in part to the globalization of our culture with information on foreign lands just a mouse-click away Americans are vacationing in ever-more-exotic ways. Of course, there are still hedonistic getaways to beaches where your toughest decision of the day is whether to take a nap or a swim. But increasingly, we are opting for spending our vacation dollars in ways that will help improve the planet – something called voluntourism.
It’s been estimated that overall the market has grown to a total of 1.6 million volunteer tourists a year, with a value of between $1.7 billion and $2.6 billion, according to Global Volunteer Tourism Guide, a survey of more than 300 volunteer tourism organizations worldwide. “Voluntourism” is clearly on the rise and not just for couples or groups.
“In my work, I’ve seen more single women traveling and volunteering,” says Jane Stanfield, author of Mapping Your Volunteer Vacation. “When I teach classes about voluntourism at the local community colleges in Denver, 90 percent of the students are women. They tend to be 40-plus and eager to hear about what is available.”
Single and Ready to Mingle
As a single woman, Stanfield traveled the world at 46 and completed 12 volunteer projects within one year in seven different countries. She found jobs through agencies such as Global Volunteers, Earthwatch and I to I, and says she always felt safe and secure, even when in developing countries. “But then again, I had done lots of research and took some simple steps to make sure I felt safe,” she says. “I read guidebooks on most of the countries I visited and had a good idea of what a woman could expect in that culture.” For instance, she read that women need to be ultra-aware when traveling alone in South Africa.
As for opportunities to meet like-minded, altruistic single men on her travels, Stanfield says it works sometimes, though it’s far easier for men than for women. She found the ratio of men to women to be 30/70. “Most of the single men seemed to be under 25 or over 65,” she says. “It’s possible that most men close to my age might not have felt that they could take two to three weeks away from work.”
If you’re looking to travel with a specific age group, Stanfield suggests asking several agencies about the statistics of their average volunteer.
“Singles are more than welcome in volunteer travel,” says Sheryl Kayne, author of Volunteer Vacations Across America, which details 200 organizations and programs catering to people who want to do more than sightsee on vacation. “Numerous volunteer opportunities have space for only one person at a time, while others are group activities and there’s always room for someone else.”
Through her experience, Kayne has met several single people who have benefited greatly from voluntourism. “Many singles use volunteer travel to expand their horizons,” she says. She tells of one single parent, Marta, who took part in a trip to build a community center on the Lakota Indian Reservation in North Dakota. She was so moved by her experience that she made a return trip to the reservation with her 16-year-old daughter because she felt it was so important that she see, appreciate and understand that not everyone lives like they do.
Shannon O’Donnell, an unmarried writer and travel blogger, has been traveling around the world solo for about two and a half years and volunteers along the way. In that amount of time, there is almost no job she hasn’t done. “I lean more toward teaching computer skills in Cambodia or English in Nepal, but have also happily wielded a machete [preparing] to construct brick and cement stoves in rural Guatemala,” she says. “I find the experience incredibly worthwhile.”
Has she ever met a special someone on her journey? Yes and no. “Hearing the stories of the locals I work with is very special. Volunteering is a great way to travel if you’re looking for a window into people and a deeper cultural experience,” she says. Still, some have discovered old-fashioned romance in their travels, with exotic locales as a backdrop.
Natalie Alhonte Braga, an account executive with Edelman public relations, was on a trip to Brazil sponsored by a nonprofit organization for high school students when she met a Brazilian volunteer.
“We dated for seven years long distance, and now we’re married and living in New York,” Alhonte Braga says. “While I was there, many of my friends met other singles, and I think it’s because there is something about being abroad and being engaged in service that increases your self-confidence. I truly believe that the confidence I felt at that moment helped me attract an amazing guy like the one I married.”
Finding the Right Fit
There are many ways to find volunteer work, and not all of them require spending an arm and a leg, or even going through an organization.
When Betty Thesky, author of the new book Betty in the Sky with a Suitcase: Hilarious Stories of Air Travel by the World’s Favorite Flight Attendant, got the urge to help after the tsunami hit South Asia, she took matters into her own hands.
“A friend and I had already been talking about taking a big trip in the next few months, so we both decided that instead of taking some fancy vacation, we would use our time off to head over to that area to lend a hand,” she says. “We started researching volunteer organizations on the internet, but we ran into many hurdles the biggest of which was the price. Many organizations charge upwards of $2,500 a week to volunteer. I can’t afford a week at a luxury spa, so I’m certainly not going to pay the same price to do manual labor.”
Thesky and her friend flew to Thailand and quickly learned that volunteers were needed on the island of Phi Phi. They needed people with snorkeling and diving skills (both of which the two ladies had). “When the big wave hit, it deposited every single item from the town in the bay,” Thesky says. “Everything from tin roofs to furniture was rotting on the sea floor, and if it didn’t get cleaned up, it would forever damage the fragile coral reef.”
Thesky got to work right away, almost amused that snorkeling in a beautiful bay could be considered work, but found that it became a very powerful experience. “This is what every volunteer vacationer dreams of: a way to help, to be effective, to make a difference, and to join forces with others with the same mindset. It was heartwarming to be part of a group effort that really did some good, and it didn’t cost us thousands of dollars, either.”
The bottom line seems to be this: When you’re single, you can have a wonderful, enriching vacation by volunteering. Just do your research, get out the sunscreen and boldly go on your voluntourism adventure.
Here are 9 helpful resources for single voluntourists:
1. Voluntourism.org is a website with information about scores of specialized volunteer opportunities in the U.S. and worldwide.
2. Here’s a travel trade newsletter for those interested in discovering what’s happening in the world of voluntourism and seeking emerging practices, general information, and case studies.
3. Matador Network is an independent media company serving a global community of people who share a love for life and travel.
4. Bob Marshall Wilderness Foundation (BMWF) – A nonprofit based in Montana charged with restoring and preserving the trail system and wilderness values in the 1.5 million-acre Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex. Unlike costlier voluntourism, all that is required is transportation to Montana; BMWF handles all the logistics, including meals, work itineraries, tools and equipment.
5. The Voluntary Traveler: Adventures from the Road Best Traveled – This part anthology, part travel guide opens new worlds through intriguing real-life stories by travelers who have walked the walk of volunteer travel. The collection also includes a detailed volunteer guidebook section, listing charities needing volunteer assistance and organizations coordinating service-oriented travel.
6. Lonely Planet Volunteer: A Traveler’s Guide to Making a Difference Around the World offers a unique, user-friendly structure arranged by type of volunteering program. More than 170 organizations are listed and reviewed, dozens of seasoned volunteers share their experiences and top tips, and it’s written by passionate, well-traveled Lonely Planet authors advised by a team of experts in the field and fully illustrated with color photographs of volunteers in action.
7. Frommer’s 500 Places Where You Can Make a Difference details adventures such as working with scientists at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.; caring for orphans in New Delhi, India; tracking dolphins in Oahu, Hawaii; or studying mammoth bones in South Dakota.
8. The 100 Best Volunteer Vacations to Enrich Your Life by Pam Grout includes building houses in Appalachia, saving sea turtles in Costa Rica and teaching English in Thailand, as well as a list of resources and organizations offering volunteer vacations.
Jane Ganahl has been a journalist, author, editor and arts producer in San Francisco for 30 years. She is the co-founder and co-director of Litquake, the West Coast’s largest independent literary festival; she is also the author of “Naked on the Page: the Misadventures of My Unmarried Midlife,” and editor of the anthology, “Single Woman of a Certain Age.” She has contributed to Huffington Post, Match.com, Harper’s Bazaar, Ladies’ Home Journal, Harp, Parenting, Book, Salon.com, Vanity Fair.com, RollingStone.com and more.