Catherine Pearson, a former intern at Traveler, has been researching the rise of volunteer vacations. She spoke with one family who was the test case for a new family voluntourism program, and learned a bit about how to roast marshmallows over molten lava.
When the Delange family arrived in Guatemala for their volunteer vacation with Global Vision International (GVI), a UK-based volunteer organization, they were greeted by a mudslide.
"It was a bad welcome," says Alex, the mother, and she admits that she wondered what she had gotten them into. The unseasonably heavy rains continued into the trip, but Alex
considered it a success. After all, they hadn't planned on having a typical vacation.
Alex, her husband, Greg, and their three teenagers recently spent a week in Antigua, Guatemala, staying with a host family and building stoves for other families in a nearby town. Although many organizations offer volunteer vacations for families, the Delanges' trip was a first—both for them and their sponsor organization, GVI. The trip met Alex's three criteria: It was short-term, provided Spanish immersion, and made a quick, visible difference.
GVI now offers this stove-building opportunity for families with children 12 and older. In two days, volunteers build a cement, block and brick energy-efficient stove to replace open cooking fires in the village. This change decreases smoke inhalation, burns, hours of gathering wood, and deforestation for the community.
The Delanges had skied and scuba dived as a family. And they had cleaned beaches near their Miami home. But Alex, the only one who had previously volunteered abroad, wanted a change for the whole family.
"We live in a designer society here," Alex says. "We don't see poverty all around us. That's not the reality of the world that I want them to be aware of."
The trip would give not only perspective but also the chance to make a tangible difference. Before leaving, Alex followed Guatemala's news and contacted past volunteers and her own friends to get advice regarding the trip. But once they were there, safety was not a problem, and no one in the family got sick except Alex, who carried home a cold.
When they arrived at the site, Alex, already fluent in Spanish, started building right away. But Greg and the children had two days of Spanish class, which included visits to macadamia nut and coffee plantations. This boosted their speaking abilities and confidence, so they could chat with the families while building stoves over the next two days.
There were some elements that took getting used to, Alex says, as running water and electricity were unreliable, if available. Runny noses and poor sanitation were as constant as the eager-to-help toddlers who stuck close by, the children who laughed and sang, and the families who lavished thanks and served the Delanges snacks.
The last day of the trip was set aside for fun. Roasting marshmallows over lava was the highlight for 13-year-old Christopher. He said they were the best he'd ever had. Of course, the two-hour climb up a volcano wasn't bad either, even for Alex (who's afraid of heights).
But the best part of the trip was getting out of the family's comfort zone. Alex hopes her children have taken the lessons from experience back home with them. "It's not what you have," she says. "It's who you are, and other places in the world do it differently. That doesn't mean it's better, just different."
Since the family got back in mid-June, the kids have been grateful for their home and a nice shower. They'll likely go again, but they haven't yet made plans to do so, and Alex isn't looking for immediate effects from the trip. "It's part of growing kids up," she says. "It molds them in the long run."
Photos: Above, Roasting marshmallows over a volcano; Below left, the family poses with community members next to their new stove; Below right, the Delange children play with the village children. Courtesy Alex Delange