Volunteer vacations are growing increasingly popular. But as a Wall Street Journal article noted this past week, some volunteer vacations (and volunteer efforts in general) may do more harm than good. The article referred to a project in South America that was left undone (the volunteers didn’t have enough time to finish it) and that wasn’t even what the communuty requested or needed.
Choose your volunteer organization carefully. When my teenage son and I decided to take a volunteer vacation together, we selected Global Volunteers, one of the oldest and most reputable volunteer vacation companies out there. For one week, we taught conversational English to middle-school students in a working class town in the heel of Italy’s boot.
We didn’t change the world but I think we did do more good than harm. Today, 15 months after that short trip, we continue our cultural exchange with these students via letters, samples of magazines and newspapers, and most recently, a goody box full of St. Patrick’s Day trinkets.
And I know for sure the trip did great things for my son and I. Here’s an excerpt of a piece I wrote about the trip and about what it did for our relationship:
Mother and Son Go to Italy to Teach — and to Learn, Too
On my last day in Italy, I wanted to buy a gelato before the cafes closed for afternoon break, but I was too busy signing autographs. I didn’t go to Carovigno, a slightly scruffy, working-class town of 15,000 in the heel of Italy’s boot, for my 15 minutes of fame. The autograph-signing was an unexpected by-product of a desire to travel with my 13-year-old son, Austin. He and I spent a week there teaching English with Global Volunteers.This volunteer vacation organization gets lots of young people on its trips to places such as Costa Rica, Tanzania and India, to build community centers, renovate houses and cuddle orphans. But the trips that focus on teaching conversational English attract mostly retirees. So when my tall, blond teen arrived at Morelli Middle School and announced he was a guest English teacher, pandemonium ensued. Teacher was a hottie! Austin chilled with his new posse, but we managed to get in some teaching, too. We were asked to concentrate on American pronunciation, colloquialisms and culture. We did a lesson on Thanksgiving and another on the U.S. presidential election. (The Italian kids didn’t know their apple pie from their pumpkin, but were more familiar with the U.S. political system than I’ll ever be with the Italian one.) Our week in Carovigno gave us the chance to live like locals. We headed out each morning not to sightsee, but to work. And while “work” and lavoro are supposed to mean the same thing, we quickly learned how different they are. On our first day, the teacher interrupted us in mid-lesson with a tray of espresso and biscotti. The pursuit of dolce vita is as much a part of the school day as spelling and science, yet the Italian kids seem to learn just as much as American kids. The best part was what brought me to Italy in the first place – the chance to spend one-on-one time with my adolescent son while he was still willing to hang out with Mom. After school, we hiked by the Adriatic Sea and strolled through the walled city of Ostuni. One day, Austin climbed a pomegranate tree and picked a fruit, which we split open to gobble the juicy seeds. I watched my son stretch himself as he pulled together lesson plans each night – “Do my teachers really have to do all this stuff?” – and faced expectant youngsters each morning. By the end of the week, Austin was exhausted from teaching. As Austin’s mom and fellow teacher, I got to bask in his reflected glow. When it was time to say ciao, the kids asked for my autograph while they waited for the one they really wanted – Austin’s.