The current trend in “PhilanthroTrips”, also known as “VolunTourism”, has come about in large part due to well-established organizations such as UNICEF, Save The Children, CARE International and World Vision, but there are plenty of individuals and small groups making a big difference as well. “Perspective is a great thing,” says Lou Ritchie, who founded Banyan Resources, facilitating PhilanthroTravel to Central America. “Looking back at the U.S. from a developing country really opens your eyes.” On one particular trip, his group created a clinic in the jungle for islands with no medical care, running water or power. “We had a boat that facilitated 300 of the islanders to come to shore and travel by cattle to the clinic,” says Ritchie. “About 300 lives were impacted, and one fellow in particular had a serious lung disorder that was identified and treated. That is a lifelong memory for me.”
Abigail D’Souza of Stitched Life in Miami believes traveling with a purpose truly gives you lessons that you can’t find on the Internet or in a book. “Volunteering helps you find a piece of yourself while trying to help others — and merging both is priceless,” she says. “Since I was young, giving back has been a passion of mine. I was lucky to be invited to volunteer at an orphanage in Haiti through Gracious Hands, which has completely changed my life. When I first arrived to the orphanage the children were filled with happiness as they ran to embrace us with so much love, I wanted to bottle up that moment forever.”
Similarly, Valerie Parks started arranging philanthropic trips to Romania and Haiti because she wanted to see the world while helping people get out of difficult life situations. “I may be helping some, but mostly I’m learning from the people I’m there to help,” she says. One year, she sponsored a summer camp for underprivileged kids in Romania, and no one signed up. “The local social worker investigated for us and found out that the families were afraid we planned to harvest their children’s organs,” she says. “By the end of that first camp, the kids were asking: ‘Why are you doing this for us? No one has ever done anything so nice for us!’”
In reality, poverty exists everywhere, even in a fabulous vacation destination like Hawaii, which is why Katie Lane committed 3 months with humanitarian organization Surfing The Nations (STN). She reflects vividly on the experience: “I had done a semester in college and tried my best to follow society’s idea of what a 19-year-old should do and was left empty,” she says. “At STN, our primary focus is working with at-risk youth…we call it our ‘Ulu Pono’ program which is Hawaiian for ‘to thrive on a righteous path.’ We give children in the community of Wahiawa, Hawaii (the roughest, most impoverished part of Oahu), somewhere to go after school where they can do homework, have someone to play with and basically just show them that their life has value and that they don’t have to make the same choices as their family or peers.”
Spreading his philanthropic ideals as far as possible, Ricky Patel focuses his vacations on helping children in need and invites his friends along. “These trips are incredibly humbling,” says he. “I always tell people how every time I fly to Haiti I have a sense of excitement to see the kids and find out how they’ve improved since the last time I saw them. While I’m there, I feel the unconditional love, and when I leave, I have a feeling of needing to do more. These trips make me understand how many things I should be grateful for.”
“Traveling truly does awaken leaders, which is the motto of Nyah Project,” says Daniel Green, Founding Advisory Board Member. “Every summer we send 10 students from under-served communities in the Miami area to international destinations for experiential learning experiences.” This past summer was his first year attending the trip with the students, visiting Namibia and London over a two-week period. “It allowed us to connect with some of Miami’s brightest and most impressive students as well as immerse ourselves in foreign cultures,” he continues. “We visited elementary schools in Namibia, toured Nelson Mandela’s House, experienced safari and game drives as well as toured the beautiful city of London. Many of these students had never been on a plane or traveled outside of the U.S. prior to this trip. It was amazing to share that first-time experience with them.”
Many groups understand that money is a big concern, often an insurmountable obstacle, when it comes to VolunTourism, especially for the young. “After years of watching kids called to service and not have the financial support to go, we started Love’s Calling to engage young adults in challenging, personally relevant, real-world outreach experiences all over the world,” says Executive Director Leeann Unruh. “They often bring with them things like guitars and ukuleles that they have fun playing for the kids in the streets. Music is an instrument of peace and togetherness. It seems to be a great travel tool as well as phones with cameras where the kids can see instant pictures of themselves. The students who focus on sports outreach use soccer, volleyball, basketball and lacrosse as ways to connect and engage with the locals.”
Youth With A Mission is also working hard to start people out early for a lifetime of PhilanthroTravel. Schuler Levin, a Florida native who is presently working with the group in Perth, Australia, recently returned from Manila, where her group focuses on teaching and bringing awareness to human trafficking. “What I get out of these trips is priceless,” she says. “I see people receive the free gift of salvation every time I volunteer, I see people miraculously healed, physically and emotionally, and I see people get freed from the bondage of the world.”
If jumping on a plane to volunteer all over the world isn’t on your itinerary, don’t fret. You can party hearty for a good cause on the high seas while contributing in your own way to change lives. The Groove Cruise, owned & operated by Whet Travel, features “Destination Donation” where cruisers bring and donate school supplies, clothing and other items to orphanages and charities serving underprivileged children at a selected stopover.
In the end, when it really comes down to it, regardless of how you choose to give back and make a difference, the key to ultimate satisfaction is that you lead with your heart and find a cause you’re passionate about. You have the power to make as much of a difference as you are able. And there’s no effort too small when it comes to helping make the world a better place. And that alone could make all the difference in not only your life, but in the lives of others.