When you’re traveling a lot, it’s tough to volunteer and give back to the world. You can’t necessarily take a daily or weekly position in one city and commit to being there. You can’t mentor a kid for a year without skipping town and letting them down or organize a major fundraiser when your next trip is right around the corner — which is why voluntourism, either going somewhere specifically to volunteer or finding organizations to volunteer for quick stints wherever you happen to be, is such an appealing concept.
Many of us search for those moments where we can offset our carbon footprint, create a routine of giving back, or take part in any small act of kindness, however brief. By volunteering for a few days or weeks, we can put some of that positivity into the universe. And while voluntourism can bring up thoughts of teaching or building abroad, you don’t have to leave the country to do good while you’re on the road. There’s plenty you can do while traveling in the U.S.
Combine hiking and camping with protecting America’s public lands.
One thing that makes America unique and special is just how much land we have. And how much of it is for the people. It’s a gift. And truly, if you’ve ever enjoyed a national park, monument, or BLM land, you should do something for it — whether that’s donating money or volunteering time to take care of it. One great way to combine volunteering with an amazing road trip or camping excursion is to help with park conservation.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy relies heavily on volunteers to help with trail preservation and park maintenance. Consider doing a small amount of volunteering in exchange for spending extra time at one of the beautiful parks along the route. If you want something with a little more structure, The American Hiking Society offers specific week-long trips to volunteer in various parks around the county. You’re placed with a small group of other volunteers and spend the day working with and supporting park staff. The trip usually involves free camping or lodging and access to cooking areas. This spring, they still have spots available to work on Cumberland Trail in Tennessee and Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in New York. And while these trips do allow some time to explore the area, consider extending your trip to relax a bit after.
You know what they say, work hard, play hard.
Volunteer on an organic farm.
WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms) is an organization that pairs volunteers up with small farms to work all over the world in exchange for room and board. If you’re looking for a way into a cool area of the country but have zero dollars for a hotel, it’s a great way to home base it from your destination (while also meeting other cool travelers and supporting local farmers). Plus, the time commitment is super flexible. Commitments can be anything from a few days to months.
Help communities recover from natural disasters.
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All Hands And Hearts deploys teams of volunteers after major disasters to help with recovery. Currently, they have US bases in Florida, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and Texas. One cool thing about All Hands And Hearts is that they don’t just go to hand out water bottles and peace out, they stay with a community — addressing the long term needs after a disaster, repairing infrastructure and helping individuals with their homes, businesses, and schools. Tasks could be anything from removing debris to painting to installing insulation to removing mold.
All Hands is also free to volunteer for with no minimum time limit. They say an average is two weeks, though some people stay longer or just commit to a few days. And they provide free housing and food. Most destinations you have to get to yourself, but right now they are offering complimentary flights from U.S. destinations to the Texas site, where they have a big need (you have to stay a minimum of two weeks to qualify).
Build houses for those in need.
Most people know about Habitat for Humanity, an organization that often hosts volunteers for short stretches of time, whether it be a day or a few weeks, building houses all over the country. They’re great at meeting you at the experience level you’re at and, in my experience, endlessly patient with new builders.
For the constant traveler or van lifer, they have a program called Care-A-Vanners, which matches up people on the road with sites that need help, then provides a low-cost campsite for your vehicle. You can either choose to do a full build or they maintain a list of places that need some extra support where you can drop in for a day or more! It’s a great way to help whenever you have a free day.
Commit to helping combat poverty.
If you have a more extended amount of time to volunteer or want to volunteer as a way to move to and experience a new city, AmeriCorps VISTA is a wonderful organization. The program is typically a year, though they have an 8-12 week summer program as well, and they’re devoted to anti-poverty programs in the United States. You’re generally committing to full-time work and given a stipend for living costs (some programs will provide a free or low-cost option for this but you’re often responsible for your own living and food arrangements). If you’re coming from more than 50 miles away, they can sometimes provide relocation assistance.
You apply for a specific work position with AmeriCorps and there are lots of ways to contribute. Some projects include: addressing literacy in underserved schools, working in the YMCA, eco-conservation, drug treatment centers, job service placement for the homeless, healthy eating programs, low-income legal services, and tons more.
Take adults with developmental disabilities on a vacation.
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Based in New York, Sprout helps individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities grow through participating in activities, socializing, and navigating travel. It’s a really cool program, as many of its participants need support that they wouldn’t otherwise get in order to go on trips. Trips range from day excursions to week-long adventures and are led by volunteer vacation leaders — generally they employ three leaders to every 11 participants. Leaders help with things like navigation, budgeting, emotional support, safety, and sometimes tasks like personal hygiene. As a volunteer you can choose to only host one trip in a year or can work continuously, they have many options available.
One cool program they have for volunteers is for people who are not from NYC but want to be involved. As a workcamp leader, you commit to 3-10 weeks with the program and they’ll provide housing in the city. You help with light office work and leading trips and, in between traveling with participants, you have a free place to live while exploring New York City. All expenses on trips like food, hotels, and activities are free.
Past trips have included, Atlantic City, Orlando, Washington D.C., tropical cruises, Italy, Mexico, and the Netherlands.
Teach kids with autism to surf.
Surfers Healing is an organization that pairs surfers with kids with autism to teach them surfing skills and take them out onto the water. They run camps, that are volunteer based, giving over 4500 kids and their families a day (or days) of fun and skills by the water. The transformative experience allows kids with autism, many of whom struggle with sensory overload, to connect with their guide as well as nature. They’ve found the weightlessness of the water and rhythms of the ocean often connect with the kids in ways other activities fail. Plus, you (and the kids) get to ride the waves all day, which is a guaranteed good time.
They needs lots of volunteers for camps and you can do everything from set up and working a registration table, to giving out medals, to being a surf instructor.
Adventure while conserving a National Park.
REI Adventure volunteer trips are a really great blend of working on conservation while also giving participants a way to explore and enjoy camping and adventure. These trips are teamed with the Conservation Volunteers International Program — which preserves iconic wilderness areas and cultural sites around the world. One cool aspect of this program is that you’re paired with a group, usually 8-12 people, to hang out and sit around the fire with after a day of things like trail creation and maintaining, planting, and wildlife habitat restoration. You pay to go on these trips but they make everything easy. All ground transportation, lodging, and meals are included.
Ranging from 7-10 days, REI Adventure Volunteer trips always include rest days and afternoons to simply enjoy and explore the area. Recent volunteer trips included Yosemite and national parks in Alaska.