Homeschooling: Traveling and Volunteering with Your Kids

When my twin boys were very young, my partner and I lived intermittently at a residential volunteer program called the Buffalo Field Campaign. They have a large cabin with several rooms filled with bunk beds, a communal living room, and a kitchen where 3 meals a day are prepared for volunteers. There were no other children there most of the time, and the campaign had not extended a specific invitation for families. However both of us had volunteered there for several years before our children were born, so we felt comfortable bringing our young sons along. We split up into two lower-level bunks for sleeping (with other volunteers graciously moving their beds to accommodate us) and took turns staying behind with the kids while the other parent went out on “patrol”- which meant skiing or driving to search for and monitor wild buffalo near Yellowstone Park, the required volunteer activity that makes the campaign run. Through the years we have returned to the campaign many times, and a few of the staff and volunteers have remained the same, welcoming the kids back and admiring how they have grown. It has become one of the places they call home, and I am certain they will return there on their own when they’re able. Though some of the adults living in the cabin were initially uncomfortable with sharing their space with children (especially when they were small), adjusting to the noisy, chaotic and fun-loving world of children was a growing opportunity for many. I talked to several people who informed me that because of our presence at the campaign, they had changed their views on children and realized they could be more than just a nuisance. This kind of transformation would have only been possible in the context of forced cohabitation. This experience is decidedly unique, because of our history with the campaign, but it is certainly not the only such opportunity for traveling and volunteering with children. When the boys were 5, we traveled to the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota and volunteered with a non-profit organization run by Winona La Duke which aims to provide native families with traditional food grown on Ojibway land. The children were welcomed and often spent time with a resident grandmother who was caring for her own grandchildren. They accompanied us to the raspberry fields to prune and care for the crops, and to the restaurant where funds were raised by selling traditional meals, drawing with crayons in the dining room while we chopped and scrubbed in the kitchen. Again we encountered young people who were often surprised to find they enjoyed entertaining the kids (or being entertained by them) and it gave each experience a bustling, extended family kind of feel. Also similarly, this campaign did not advertise itself as being family-friendly as most volunteer opportunities do not- but we asked anyway, and- with a bit of encouragement from us- they agreed. If you have looked into travel volunteer opportunities for families, or even thought about it, you may find these stories surprising. Many parents assume that those type of experiences is limited to young, carefree adults, unencumbered by children, mortgages, jobs, etc. Admittedly, it is much easier to engage in residential volunteer work (my term, I believe, meaning you live on-site where you’re working but not it’s not necessarily abroad, as is usually implied by the term “volunteer travel”), when you are in that stage of your life. Besides the logistics of leaving behind obligations, there is the difficulty of getting the required work done with children to look after. Depending on the age and number of your children, this is an issue you will have to plan for. Additionally, I have encountered a number of organizations who flat out refuse to allow volunteers to bring children. I chalk this up to the culturally entrenched habit of expecting children to be kept out of the way; but no matter how you feel about it, it’s usually not productive to argue with an organization over their policies. If you, like me, have tried searching for family-friendly volunteer travel opportunities, you have probably come up with a list of travel agents and organized volunteer activities in scenic parts of the world that cost a pretty penny. While these can be great experiences, I am forced by necessity and lifestyle to find opportunities that don’t come with a price tag other than the cost of getting there. For that, I have found, we have to get a bit creative. But before I talk more about that, perhaps some of you are wondering what exactly a travel volunteer trip or, in my words, a residential volunteer trip, with kids really entails, or why you would want to bother? Let me elaborate. Many people understand the inherent educational value of traveling with kids. Even if you stay in the states, traveling gives kids the opportunity to see the world through a different lens, increasing understanding of various cultural groups and forcing them to “think outside the box”, solving problems in novel ways. If you keep your kids engaged in observation and conversation as you travel, they can gain insight into the economic workings of the country (where does all our grain come from, and who grows it?) and social disparities and dynamics. There are plentiful historic, geographic, cultural and ecological wonders to enlarge a young mind traveling through our country. Traveling as a family can also be a powerful bonding experience for all. Similarly, volunteering is something most of us can see the value in. It can increase compassion and understanding, teach children how to work together to solve problems and instill a new kind of work ethic. But to travel to a location for the purpose of volunteering and lodge there for a period of time is as different from volunteering for your local food bank as it is from traveling to visit national parks. So why would anyone want to do this? I speak from experience when I say it is one of the most enriching experiences you can give your kids or yourselves. Living on-site while volunteering for an environmental or social organization gives your kids a much more intimate experience of the people and issues involved. Even when not actively engaged in the work at hand, the opportunities to pick up new knowledge and ideas abound. I’ve always felt that kids learn mostly through osmosis, so being in close proximity to adults who are conversing about issues as they go through the day can expose kids to ideas that are then digested and become part of their organic knowledge of the world. Similarly, watching adults share the work of living together, such as cooking meals, cleaning, caring for the land or buildings, negotiating trips to the grocery store, etc. is powerful immersive learning for life skills. The challenges and rewards of negotiating differences of opinions, beliefs, and lifestyles (how to decide how late people should stay up and make noise, what if some people need vegan or gluten-free meals, what if someone never does their dishes??) leads to an expansion of the mind that can serve them well in this changing and diverse world. So, where does one start if you would like to find a residential volunteer opportunity for your family? I would say first, think about issues that are most important to you. Are you passionate about environmental issues, social justice, disability rights? Then think about the types of organizations that might have residential settings, for example, trail work for a conservation crew, housing or food assistance on a native American reservation, or a residential community where disabled and able-bodied adults live together. Then, get in touch. If you are looking for a unique opportunity that doesn’t have built-in fees, the tradeoff is that it will probably take some time and patience to arrange. In most cases, you may not be able to tell immediately if children are welcome, and you will need to be in touch with someone directly to get a clear answer. Don’t be discouraged if you are turned down a few times. You may need to be flexible with your plans, and give your hosts the option of a trial period, knowing you can move on if things don’t work out. Residential volunteering can blend perfectly with a road trip or visits to friends or families. That way there is not so much pressure, and you can mix up your experiences. And if it is amazing, you can come back another time! Remember to be creative in your search- how about a Buddhist retreat center, an organic farm, or a camp for troubled or disabled children (all of which often seek residential volunteers)- and remember to be patient! If you are persistent, you will find the perfect place for your family, and the rewards will be profoundly rich and long-lasting.

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