Paid time off (PTO) can take many forms. Up until recently, my go-to getaway was the cruise, a floating barge of relaxation with a potpourri of international ports to explore. But a recent invitation by business colleagues to partake in a mission trip has made “voluntourism” a favorite new way of both escaping as well as connecting. My excursion for a cause was through HOI, Inc. to the remote Agalta Valley, where a group of more than sixty adults volunteered talents to equip a village with systems for fresh drinking water and to help a sponsored primary school enhance its sports and arts facilities. This altruistic adventure left me with five key takeaways for those considering this kind of travel philanthropy:
- Zero in on your mission – Plan to help out in the best and most sustainable way possible, taking a lead from those whom have traveled before you and whom have set up these types of projects in the past. Heed the wisdom of organizers and the parameters of locals to ensure you can assist in small ways with the proper buy-in. With the limited time you have for such a trip, you are going to want to make a realistic impact that leaves locals in a place more empowered and emboldened than they were before your arrival. The Honduras trip was so fulfilling because it centered around a village and a school where a week of annual work yielded extra labor and laughter and new assets to a master vision of campus that the local citizens could sustain year-round.
- Pick up new skills and customs – While staying safe and following the rules of your host country, there’s a lot to learn in observing the ways people work, live and play in other places. Part of the joy of wanderlust is in the exploration of other lands; voluntourism focuses this impulse quickly into achieving something specific together while dining, while folks are making a living, while they are gathering socially and while they are doing what they normally do. It is a stunningly intimate way to truly connect with families at a hyperlocal and revealing level. Plus, as our group did, we learned and refined actual new skills. Laying rebar in a concrete slab, building water filtration stands and playing the harmonica are new skills from a week in Central America.
- Leverage the opportunity to put the world in context – It becomes impossible after the trip to view American privilege, our shared impact on the world’s waters and environment and the effects of commerce, race and poverty through exactly the same lens. The ability to step out of oneself for the duration of such an experience is perhaps the most profound part of the journey. Arriving in Honduras during democratic primary elections was also a reminder of the freedoms we hold dear that we hope will take hold in more corners of the earth.
- Engage in networking with a difference – The individuals traveling together for a mission trip will be forever changed by their collective experience and simply cannot have such an understanding on home soil. Like a trust fall or a ropes course into a foreign land, these fellow pilgrims will stay connected in a continued journey long after the excursion proper has ended. I’m having dinner this weekend with friends from the trip; we now know we have several shared values in common!
- Challenge yourself – Well beyond the voluntourism trip, one should examine new ways to organize priorities and make room for philanthropy, whether close to home or far afield. Opportunities abound to make a difference and to expand your horizons; and it is a phenomenal opportunity when you can heed the call for service.