The Volunteer Vacation: A new kind of family travel
Taped to our daughter's school binder is a photo of her, arm-in-arm with grinning girls at an orphanage in Tanzania. Every day, Cassie looks at and remembers Kudra, Tatu, Esther, Joyce and Happiness. When a classmate recently sang a rap song disparaging people with AIDS, Cassie brandished the photo.
"I have friends who lost their parents because of AIDS," she said. "When you sing that, you offend them, and you offend me."
Taking kids out of their tidy, middle-America utopia can make deep inroads on their convictions. It's a parenting MO I adopted long before having kids, as I slogged across Africa with my husband, videographer Doral Chenoweth. Years later, we wanted to expand our children's awareness beyond school cliques, fashion trends and iPods. Volunteering at an African orphanage last summer gave Cassie, 13, and Kurtis, 10, a real-world perspective that went far beyond reality TV.
The internet abounds with volunteer opportunities for families. We found ours by posting a Facebook plea: A missionary directed us to LOHADA, a group of children's centers in Arusha, Tanzania.
Happiness Wambura, a preacher's wife dedicated to saving children in her community, jumped at our e-mail offer to shoot video and revamp her website. She promised to send "a cheap taxi" to retrieve us at the airport.
Our kids had been to Kenya years before. They knew this wouldn't be an air-conditioned bus tour. They would need to be flexible about foreign food, squat toilets and cultural norms that seem weird to preteen Americans. Camping and lots of meals in ethnic restaurants helped to prep them.
We loaded suitcases with granola bars, mosquito repellent and shoes for the orphans. During 17 hours on planes, we took anti-malarial pills, studied Swahili and wondered about the children we would meet. Nothing could prepare us for that.
Touching Down to Reality
At our host family's home, we found electricity, beds with mosquito nets, a (flushing!) squat toilet and cold showers.
Lesson #1: Properly motivated, kids can shower in less than 3 minutes.
After breakfast, we went to LOHADA's Camp Moses, home to 14 children, aged 6 and younger. They immediately climbed into our laps and coaxed us to push them on swings.
College-aged volunteers told us the children's stories. Zakayo's parents had died with AIDS. Esther's mother was murdered in a nearby slum. Angel was found wandering the streets alone. Kelvin had been burned - nobody knew how - and then abandoned.
Lesson #2: Childhood, for many kids, is not all Nickelodeon and lollipops.
I worried how my kids would handle such news. But Kurt was busy playing soccer with Zakayo; Cassie had gone with Esther to inspect the dress-up clothes. Every child, even those who had suffered horribly, was giggling. They delighted in teaching us Swahili, blowing soap bubbles and drawing in our notebooks. While we took photos and jotted notes, I marveled at how a warm bed and community of love could undo so much harm.
Friends for Life
Our goal was to form lasting friendships. We got the opportunity at LOHADA's Camp Joshua School, where 104 students attend classes and 84 live permanently. Their stories were no less painful: Esther, 14, and Nema, 10, lost their mother to yellow fever. Musa's mother abandoned him to an abusive uncle.
We visited the slums where some kids still live. Kudra told Cassie about life before LOHADA, when she roamed the streets.
At the school, Cassie and Kurt played soccer and netball and attended math classes. They hung out in dormitories and let the students use their cameras. They ate beans and rice with their fingers and admired new friends' vegetable plots.
The children exchanged addresses and snippets of their lives, held hands and laughed as they faltered with each other's languages. They asked questions and shared secrets. For three weeks, American and Tanzanian children dismantled the barriers erected by their cultural differences. Their commonalities, they discovered, were far more fundamental.
The first letters came a month after we returned home. Cassie and Kurt squealed as we pulled six envelopes, postmarked "Arusha" from our mailbox. When school began, we bought extra pencils to send back to Tanzania. And my children's school binders were quickly decorated with photos from their summer "vacation."
12 Things We Won't Leave the U.S. Without:
1. Language dictionary (to ask for directions to the "choo" or "bano")
2. Moist towelettes (cleans sticky fingers and dirty bus seats)
3. Swiss Army knife (cut oranges or repair motorbikes)
4. Antibiotics (cure intestinal unpleasantness)
5. Flashlight (lights darkened paths and remedies power outages)
6. Digital voice recorder (captures the voices)
7. Gaffer's tape (fixes torn hems and broken flip-flops)
8. Zipper bags (separate the stinky stuff from the clean)
9. Gifts for hosts (anything with Barack Obama on it)
10. Global cell phone (summon cab drivers and text Nana back home)
12. Chocolate bars (comfort after one too many meals of rice and beans)
A number of organizations offer families the opportunity to take volunteer vacations, both in the United States and abroad. An added bonus: Travel with volunteer groups that are 501(c)3-registered U.S. nonprofits is often tax-deductible.
A few groups to consider:
•Cross-Cultural Solutions: This group, which emphasizes cultural exchange, offers volunteer opportunities in 12 countries in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America. Families can volunteer from two to 12 weeks in orphanages and childcare centers, assist elderly or people with disabilities, or work with community organizations. Lodging, meals and transportation are provided. Minimum age requirement is 8 years old. For more information, go to crossculturalsolutions.org
•Habitat for Humanity: Families can help build homes for needy people in 40 countries through Habitat's Global Village program. Teens can pound nails and mix concrete; younger kids can clean work sites, landscape and play with children of homeowners. Trips typically last two weeks. Meals, in-country transportation and lodging are provided. Minimum age requirement varies according to camp and country; typically it's 14 and up, but exceptions are made. Go to habitat.org/gv/default.aspx
•Global Volunteers: This placement group offers families the chance to tutor children in English, save endangered turtles or build homes abroad. Destinations include 100 host communities in places such as Greece, China, Costa Rica and a Blackfeet Reservation in Montana. Trips last one to three weeks. Discounts are available for families. Food, lodging and work-site transportation are provided. Minimum age requirement varies from 5 to 16 years, according to host country. Go to globalvolunteers.org
•LOHADA: This group of three orphanages operates out of Arusha, Tanzania, a day's drive from the country's famous game parks. Families can assist with teaching, building, painting, gardening and caring for younger children. Length of trips is determined by the participants.
Food and lodging are provided. Minimum age requirement is 9. Go to lohada.org