BY HAILEY EISEN
Ever pictured yourself mixing cement while on holiday? How about teaching English or math on your next vacation? Believe it or not, more and more Canadian families are doing just that—and enjoying every minute of it.
IN A SMALL COFFEE SHOP in their west Toronto neighbourhood, the Hawkes family gathers around a photo album filled with pictures from their vacation in Africa. Pointing to images of elephants and giraffes roaming their natural habitat, the daughter—Frankie, 11, and Emma, 13—are eager to share the excitement of an experience half a world away. “The time change was the hardest thing to get used to,” says Frankie. “Our first night there, we didn’t sleep at all.” Entering a different time zone wasn’t the only adjustment the Hawkes family had to make on that trip three years ago. That’s because they skipped their traditional
spring-break beach holiday and took a volunteer vacation instead. During their three weeks in Arusha, Tanzania, the girls and their mother helped out in an orphanage—changing diapers, bottle-feeding infants and playing with toddlers—daily from 7:30 in the morning to 1 o’clock in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, John Hawkes, a corporate development professional with an engineering firm, put his business skills to work helping to secure loans for local women trying to get fledgling businesses off the ground. In the afternoons, the family took part in cultural exchange programs, which included Swahili and batik textile-dying lessons. On weekends, they went on safaris. No wonder they had no trouble selling their kids on the merits of a volunteer vacation.
YOUR LAST RESORT?
For thousands of families across North America, these trips are beginning to replace all-inclusive packages and seaside retreats. Within the past decade, this trend has been gaining momentum as more vacationers seek meaningful, guilt-free getaways. Though some work is required, these vacations often include plenty of downtime and cultural experiences. The Hawkes family turned to Cross-Cultural Solutions (CCS) to help get them organized. Each year, this non-governmental organization based in New Rochelle, N.Y., supports some 4,000 volunteer vacationers and over 300 initiatives in developing countries. Today, dozens of non-profit organizations help match families with appropriate projects. Placements in schools and orphanages often appeal to families with young children, while hospitals and homes for the elderly attract those with older kids and teens. Some overseas building projects are coordinated with youth in mind, but one thing’s for sure: all of these trips involve sacrifices.
While a family of four could spend a couple of weeks at a Disney World resort for just over $5,000, a two-week volunteer vacation might cost almost double that, not including airfare. Granted, these prices cover administrative fees required to run the volunteer projects and often include accommodations, local transportation and food. But what are the dividends? For one thing, these vacations can spark a lasting interest in volunteerism back home, encouraging family members to put some of their talents and abilities to positive use in their own communities. And there’s an added advantage. “Though volunteering is primarily
about giving back, it also provides young people with the opportunity to develop marketable skills, which are highly regarded on university and job applications,” explains Ruth MacKenzie, president of Volunteer Canada, an Ottawa-based non-profit organization that promotes volunteerism across the country.
Although older children are better suited to this kind of work, kids as young as five are accompanying their families overseas and benefiting from the volunteer-vacation experience. “They may not actually do any work,” explains Kam Santos, CCS director of communications, “but it’s quite impressive for a young child to be integrated into another culture, to attend a different type of school and to play and interact with children the same age.” And it’s not the size of each family’s contribution that matters most, Santos points out. Rather, “it’s the cycle of volunteers and the continuity of support for these projects that really makes a huge impact.”
A GLOBAL PERSPECTIVE
Craig Kielburger, a native of Thornhill, Ont., was just 12 years old in 1995 when he first set foot in a developing country. Back then, he spent seven weeks travelling through South Asia with a 24-year-old mentor, researching child slave labour. Ever since, he’s been helping to raise awareness about child poverty and the importance of youth volunteerism. Thanks to Leaders Today—an organization he co-founded that enlists Western youth to help improve the quality of life for those in the developing world—families now have a chance to travel and build schools in communities that can’t afford them.
“An experience like this changes the way you look at the world,” says Kielburger, now 25. “You’re doing something that’s emotionally and physically exhausting and relying on each other for support. It tends to unite families in a way that no other vacation can.” Leaders Today school-building trips typically take place in Kenya and Ecuador, where the organization has established volunteer communes. Families create their own itineraries, working with coordinators to prepare for their trip.
When the Shapansky family of Toronto saw an opportunity to help rebuild a school in the village of Motoni, Kenya, they didn’t hesitate to get involved. “My wife and I came from humble beginnings, but due to significant career success, our children have been raised to want for nothing,” says Kerry Shapansky, the president and CEO of a Toronto-based marketing firm. “I wanted to give my kids a wake-up call, to make them realize that they’ve really won the lottery by being born in Canada and that with this good fortune comes some obligation.”
In the summer of 2006, the Shapanskys spent eight intense days mixing cement by hand, lugging building supplies by wheelbarrow and working alongside a Kenyan team to reconstruct classrooms. In addition to all the heavy lifting, the Shapansky children—Sarah, 18, Melissa, 17, Taylor, 17, and Sydney, 15—taught English and math classes at the school. The family found time to take an eco-safari trip and spend a few days travelling around Nairobi. One of the most unforgettable sights: tens of thousands of wildebeests charging across the Mara River at the start of their migration.
What impressed Shapansky most, though, was the way the trip sensitized his family to the needs of others. Now, they make a conscious effort to incorporate some kind of social service component into every vacation they take. “Last year, we went to the British Virgin Islands for a holiday,” says Shapansky, “and it was our kids who encouraged us to rent a car for the day and deliver a huge load of food and clothing to a remote village.”
BROADENING YOUR HORIZONS
The realization that not all people live the way we do in North America solidified Kielburger’s commitment to global social activism. Youth who see first-hand how other children live around the world, he believes, are certain to experience an opening of the mind and a change in perspective. Rick Tait, director of Habitat for Humanity Canada’s Global Village Program, says the real bonus for these youth is seeing not how we differ, but how similar we are. “What impresses me most about young volunteers is the way they step into a new, often rugged environment,” he explains. “Without hesitation or shyness, they will engage in a game of soccer with local kids, instantly finding something in common as opposed to focusing on their differences.”
Based in Waterloo, Ont., Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village program provides house-building experiences that involve working alongside local craftspeople and families in countries such as Zambia and India. In the same way that Canadian volunteers come home with lessons that last a lifetime, these communities gain something equally sustainable: independence rather than dependence on non-profit organizations. As Tait observes, “Our volunteer trips teach Canadians how to give a hand up rather than a handout.”
Finding an organization whose beliefs and practices are in line with your own is the first step in planning a volunteer vacation. Here are some to consider:
Toronto, Ont. 1-800-380-4777
FREE THE CHILDREN INTERNATIONAL
Toronto, Ont. (416) 925-5894
HABITAT FOR HUMANITY CANADA
GLOBAL VILLAGE PROGRAM
1-800-667-5137, ext. 501
Toronto, Ont. (416) 964-8942
First published in New Outlook Magazine, Winter 2008