While most folks focus on the “who,” “what,” “why,” “when” and “where” of traveling to a a particular destination, there are many who also incorporate the “how”–as in “how can I help”–into their travel plans. It’s just this willingness to expand their horizons that has brought new light, and new outreach and participation, in experiencing the priceless benefits of a “volunteer vacation.”

Just check the Internet these days and you’ll find a wealth of volunteer vacation opportunities for a wide variety of focuses, interests, ages, worldwide destinations and more. Following are a handful of organizations offering opportunities where you can lend your time and talent, and truly enrich your life in the process.

Trinidad, Tobago and Turtles

Encouraging safe, eco-friendly tourism that protects the natural habitat, as well as bringing international attention to the endangered leatherback turtle, is among the focuses of several environmental organizations in the dual-island nation of Trinidad and Tobago.

Every March through September, as many as 12,000 beautiful, massive, 800-pound leatherback turtles amble from the pounding surf in which they have traveled for thousands of miles to the shores in Grand Riviere Beach in Trinidad to lay their eggs on the very beaches where they hatched. In the process, these creatures offer visitors an unprecedented opportunity to witness this extraordinary life cycle process up-close and personal.

According to Stephen Cadiz, minister of tourism, “Each year, Trinidad and Tobago welcomes visitors from all over the world who are interested in seeing the turtles in their natural habitat as well as the opportunity to aid researchers who are tirelessly working to record data about the turtle population. It is vitally important to the world ecosystem and our own tourism that, worldwide, everything is done to protect the endangered turtles.”

Accommodations offering “voluntourism” experiences include Mt. Plaisir Estate Hotel, (www.mtplaisir.com), Acajou (www.acajoutrinidad.com), and Anise Resort and Spa (www.aniseresortandspa.com) in Trinidad, and Turtle Beach Hotel (www.rexresorts.com/tobago/hotel-tobago-turtle-beach-by-rex-resorts.html) in Tobago.

Local and international organizations working in this effort include Turtle Village Trust (www.turtlevillagetrust.org), Nature Seekers (www.natureseekers.org), See Turtles (www.seeturtles.org/40/trinidad-sea-turtles.html) and Save Our Sea Turtles (http://sos-tobago.org).

Elephants never forget

And neither will you after helping to save the endangered Indian Elephant in Jaipur, India. A unique opportunity to volunteer in a wildlife conservation project is being offered by the organization United Planet at the Jaipur Elephant Sanctuary. Their goal is to raise awareness and help save the endangered Indian elephant population.

The fun, educational and rewarding environment of this program–the first of its kind for this well-established organization representing causes such as wildlife conservation, women’s empowerment, social development and health care–encompasses hands-on, interactive care and rescue of the elephants for volunteers from all over the world, coupled with what they call a “complete cultural immersion” experience.

According to the organization’s representatives, “Elephants have long been an important part of Indian culture and religion–and volunteers can help ensure that these animals receive proper care and respect. Volunteers choosing to work on the Elephant Sanctuary Quest will live and work alongside local people, feeding the elephants, bathing and cleaning them, and performing general maintenance and upkeep of the facility. Volunteers will learn first-hand how to care for the majestic creatures while developing relationships with both the animals and their handlers.”

In addition to the opportunity in Jaipur, the organization also offers short- and long-term volunteer abroad programs in over 40 countries.

Working together to find a solution

According to organization Cross-Cultural Solutions, connecting with people and finding commonality for a shared goal are among the most meaningful and impactful ways to approach volunteering abroad. That’s why their international programs address a wide variety of areas of impact designed to improve and/or enhance the quality of health care, infants and children, people with disabilities, those affected by HIV/AIDS and other areas through their individual, group and teen volunteer programs.

Destinations include Ghana, South Africa, Tanzania, Guatemala, Brazil, Costa Rica, Morocco, Thailand, Peru and India. In Cape Town, South Africa, for example, volunteers are needed to help support children and their families by providing teaching assistance and care for children in a safe environment while their parents peruse full-time employment opportunities. In Salvador, Brazil, volunteers help support abandoned elderly women in the favelas, or “shanty towns”–made up of overrun and overpopulated makeshift homes built in polluted areas that pose serious safety and health risks to their occupants–by providing health care, food and housing.

Habitats for all of humanity

Most people in the U.S. are familiar with Habitat for Humanity International, the world leader in addressing the issues of poverty housing since the 1970s by helping low-income people find affordable housing. In addition to their efforts here in the U.S., the organization also offers volunteer opportunities in Canada, the Caribbean, Africa, Latin America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

Their programs are numerous, some designed specifically for volunteers who are women, youth or veterans, for short- and long-term assignments, RV care, church groups, disaster relief and more. Just a few of their worldwide programs include providing builing assistance and financial education in Kenya, working in urban communities in the Greater Amman area in Jordan and upgrading urban slums in Madagascar

Helping in the great outdoors

Those desiring to connect with the great outdoors might consider a volunteer stint with the Sierra Club, reportedly the country’s largest, most effective grassroots movement. The organization reports close to 90 service trips a year to a variety of state and federal land agencies where volunteers are teamed up with park service personnel or forest service rangers to help maintain trails and restore wilderness areas, remove non-native plants and other duties. According to the organization, their annual efforts equate to roughly 27,000 work hours with an estimated monetary value of $405,000.

Featured trips this year include refurbishing both highly used and remote areas of Capitol Reef National Park in central Utah, working under the direction of a terrestrial ecologist in the Kalaupapa Peninsula in Molokai, Hawaii, and, for those who prefer to stay close to home, planting and weeding trees, flowers and shrubs and fulfilling other duties in Riverside Park in conjunction with the Riverside Park Conservancy, just to name a few.

Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.Examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for SoulOfAmerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at lallmanbaldwin@kc.rr.com.

Resource list

  • Cross-Cultural Solutions: 800-380-4777, www.crossculturalsolutions.org
  • Habitat for Humanity: 1-800-HABITAT, 229-924-6935, www.habitat.org
  • India Jaipur Travel: www.jaipurtravel.com/jaipur_local_tours.htm
  • United Planet: 800-292-2316, www.unitedplanet.org
  • Sierra Club: 415-977-5500, www.sierraclub.org
  • Trinidad and Tobago Tourism Development Company Ltd.: 868-675-7034, www.goTrinidadandTobago.com, 868-639-2125, www.visittobago.gov.tt