Volunteering Vacations: How To Give Back

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Scott Boyd

September 15, 2016

Travel and lifestyle

We’ve all heard the old expression that it's better to give than to receive. So the chance to “receive” a rewarding vacation adventure, while at the same time giving much needed aid and assistance, is a rare opportunity. For a growing number of Canadians, a volunteering vacation is the perfect way to experience a unique travel destination, while helping to improve conditions for the less fortunate.

Students have a long history of using breaks from their studies to travel to other communities to volunteer their services. More recently, a growing number of older individuals have chosen to put a lifetime of experience and proven abilities to good use, and the benefits these individuals bring to volunteer programs are immeasurable.

Indeed, retired persons and their well-established skills are highly sought after by volunteer organizations, and more and more are answering the call. With everything from construction skills to medical expertise in short supply in many parts of the world, just about anyone can make a positive difference.

What you can expect

Depending on where you decide to volunteer, the term “culture shock” could soon take on a very personal meaning for you. But experiencing something totally outside your comfort zone is the whole point of taking on a life-altering challenge, right?

At first, working and living very closely with people who have different customs from you, and who may even speak a different language, can be daunting. This is but a brief transition, and is more than compensated by the opportunity to totally immerse yourself into the local culture. Consider also the very strong likelihood of developing friendships that last a lifetime, and you soon realize that you will indeed receive far more than you give.

Some things to keep in mind

There are many agencies that specialize in connecting volunteers with appropriate opportunities. These experts can help you with all the arrangements, and can also give you the rundown of the tasks you will be expected to perform. It's very important that you get a clear understanding before you strike out – you surely don’t want to discover that you’ve signed up to provide engineering expertise, when you really want to teach English.

Another surprise you don’t want involves your accommodations. While some may revel at the idea of living in a remote camp, this is certainly not for everyone. Also, the sad reality is that in too many parts of the world, the greatest need exists in places that have experienced instability. Do your research before you commit to any program to ensure that you're comfortable with the political climate, if you are in any way concerned for your personal safety.

When it comes to costs, programs can vary widely. In some cases, you pay to participate in the program in exchange for food and accommodations, while in other cases you simply need to cover your travel expenses. The best advice is to work with a reputable agency, as they have the experience to answer all your questions and help get you organized.

Finally, attempting to claim some portion of your expenses as a charitable donation could raise eyebrows with the Canada Revenue Agency. The CRA does permit you to claim for charitable donations, but only from approved organizations, and only for your donations of cash or material goods. Generally speaking, this means you cannot submit a tax receipt based on the value of your labour.

We’ve really only touched on the highlights of volunteering vacations here, but there are many excellent resources available on the internet. If you’d like to learn more, here are a few to get you started:

Canadian Alliance for Development Initiatives and Projects

Habitat for Humanity

Global Volunteers

Volunteer Canada