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Adventure Volunteerism: Taking Voluntourism Up a Notch

For your next trip, consider helping others and challenging yourself


A few months ago, I wrote a Next Avenue article about how my husband, Rick, and I found purpose, adventure and our encore careers in Africa. (We wrote a whole book about it: From Silicon Valley to Swaziland.)  Now I want to tell you — if you’re near or in retirement — why I think you should consider combining travel and volunteering, but taking it up a notch from what’s known as “voluntourism.”

With “voluntourism,”part of your vacation involves volunteering to help a cause or improve the local community. That can be something as little as spending an afternoon cleaning up a beach or having a more meaningful, sustainable impact, like building houses.

What Adventure Volunteerism Is

Voluntourism is great, but I’m a proponent of what I call “adventure volunteerism.” That means volunteering abroad while adding a sense of adventure when you do it.

It’s true that some fine organizations such as National Geographic and Overseas Adventure Travel, offer adventure travel experiences which integrate more strenuous activities with exotic locations, allowing participants to see gorgeous geography and explore new cultures, people, and perspectives.

After hiking mostly uphill in dense forest for almost two hours with my two adult children, we saw the gorillas about 10 feet away!

But adventure volunteerism focuses primarily on volunteering or working while secondarily exploring an exotic location and culture. You might do it for a few weeks or, if you have the time, inclination and spirit, up to a year or more (as long as two years with the Peace Corps). It’s more challenging than standard voluntourism, but, as my husband and I have found, incredibly rewarding.

As I noted in my earlier Next Avenue article, we’re former Silicon Valley high tech executives now in our 60s who are committed travelbugs. We’ve been fortunate to visit more than 50 countries on six continents and in our late 50s spent time in Mbabane, Swaziland and Nairobi, Kenya as Volunteer Consultants for TechnoServe (a nonprofit whose tagline is “Business Solutions to Poverty”). My focus was building youth entrepreneurship; Rick’s was consulting to small local businesses.

Our stints as VolCons led us into adventure volunteerism. But how do you determine what combination of adventure and volunteerism makes sense for you?

Start by honestly answering questions like these:

  • What issues are you passionate about; or, put another way, what makes your blood boil or your heart smile?
  • Do you want to be near, or move way outside, your comfort zone?
  • Which of your skills do you want to apply?
  • How long are you willing to be away from home?

Our Adventure Volunteerism Experiences

Let me tell you a little about our adventure volunteerism experiences in and around Mbabane, Swaziland and then in Nairobi, Kenya.

We initially committed to six months with TechnoServe in Swaziland, for which we received housing and daily $50 stipend. Our home was a little cottage overlooking beautiful Emaphini valley. We worked with colleagues in a typical office — except that 15 of us shared a slow Internet connection.

In our free time, early on, we went on two safaris. One was like walking through a zoo-like park, with no cages (!). We stood less than 10 feet from a hippo, whose gigantic body could have plunged through the opening in the stone wall about five feet from us.

Lest you think it was all play and no work, by the time we departed from Swaziland, my colleague and I established a youth entrepreneur program that’s still going strong and Rick mentored several businesses.

Our experience led us to commit to a year in Nairobi, Kenya, a 4 million-person city. About half the population there lived in slums. In Swaziland, we drove ourselves around and safely walked around most places, but Nairobi was much different. There, we used TechnoServe drivers or taxis, only walked a few places during daylight hours and lived in a compound surrounded by 10-foot-high walls topped with electrified barbed-wire with a 24-hour guard behind a closed metal gate.

My projects were still youth-entrepreneurship focused but Rick acted as a virtual Deputy to the new Country Director for Kenya and to a lesser extent, for Uganda.

On most weekends, we had adventures. One highlight was our travel to Lamu Island; it was like stepping into a different time. Transportation consisted of donkeys and small boats called dhows. We also adopted baby elephants at the Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage on the edge of Nairobi National Park and cuddled baby chimps on Ngamba Island in Lake Victoria, Uganda. On multiple safaris here, we saw the Big Five animals (buffalo, elephant, rhinoceros, lion and leopard), as well as hippos, antelopes, hundreds of bird species, warthogs and wild pigs.

Another highlight was trekking with armed guards to find and observe families of mountain gorillas in Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in western Uganda. After hiking mostly uphill in dense forest for almost two hours with my two adult children, we saw the gorillas about 10 feet away! The huge silverback (dominant male) kept a close eye on his womenfolk and babies. He only growled and beat his chest once — when our son unintentionally moved slightly. It was inspiring.

Plotting Your Adventure Volunteerism Trip

For you, adventure tourism might mean counting moose in Maine, working with a native tribe in a Latin American rainforest in Latin America, caring for rescued elephants in Thailand, assisting patients care in an Indian hospital or training teachers in Kenya.

Wherever you go and whatever you do, your rewards will go far beyond the tangible experiences. For Rick and me, our adventure tourism rewards keep on giving.

Here are some resources to help you embark on an adventure volunteering trip:

Vacation 4 A Cause It’s a full-service travel agency that partners with many nonprofits or one of the traveler’s own choice. The agency then donates a significant portion of its profits.

Tourism Cares  This is the tourism industry’s charitable arm, which channels its philanthropy to protect and restore emerging or at-risk destinations and enable tourism to become a community’s economic engine.

REI Volunteer Vacations  Here, travelers work alongside expedition leaders and park rangers to: gain insight into regional culture and geography; help protect spectacular adventure travel destinations and explore the surroundings.

Road Monkey  It lets adventurous travelers explore while building a small sustainable project in one community.

And a few organizations that might let you serve: TechnoServe, Moving Worlds, Global Volunteer Network, International Volunteer HQ,  Projects Abroad, Developing World Connections, Care Corps International and Peace Corps.

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