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Purpose Driven

East Bay students turn vacations into volunteer opportunities, exploring life beyond their borders while helping others.


Last April, rather than riding dune buggies in Baja or sunning in Cabo for spring break, hundreds of local teenagers eagerly signed up for Piedmont Community Church’s annual mission to Mexico, helping to build small two-room houses on a rugged hillside of Tijuana, where pallet-stacked shacks had stood before.

East Bay teens help build houses in Tijuana during Piedmont Community Church’s annual mission to Mexico.

For four days under a beating sun, the students—with guidance from professional contractors—poured concrete slabs, cut boards with handsaws, and pounded nails, expanding their capacity for compassion and having a grand adventure in the process.

Piedmont High junior Abby Post remembers the presentation of house keys to a local family on the last evening of the project. During a short ceremony, everyone—the home recipients, students, contractors, pastors—had kept their emotions in check until they spotted the family’s nine-year-old son off in a corner by himself, sobbing softly and gently touching the walls as if to confirm a mirage.

“That was when everyone broke down and started crying and laughing, and sharing prayers and hugs,” says Post, a 16-year-old who plans to take the trip again this year. “We all felt this happiness together. It’s a moment that sticks with me.

“As a kid living in Piedmont, which is a very privileged place, it helped me to see how other people in this world don’t have it as easy as I do,” adds Post. “Going there and helping, even in a small way, has really affected how I think about things.”

Whether it’s called service travel, a volunteer vacation, or even “voluntourism,” this kind of excursion has become a popular option for students, families, and adults who have the resources to travel but yearn for journeys with a higher purpose, or a getaway that brings about some good.

Experts say that adventure combined with altruism is one of the biggest travel trends of the 21st century. Hundreds of humanitarian organizations, religious groups, and for-profit travel agencies in the East Bay and beyond offer both national and international trips with varying costs and levels of engagement.

Some groups provide meals and lodging to volunteers in exchange for unpaid help, while others charge travelers thousands of dollars to participate. The options range from spending a couple of days restoring a trail in Yosemite to taking a month off to help with an agricultural project in Swaziland. Such excursions can make for an exciting vacation story—or inspire a passion that lasts a lifetime.

Guiding Forces

When he was a student at Concord’s De La Salle High, Matt Machado spent two back-to-back summers doing service trips with The Road Less Traveled, an organization that offers high-school and middle-school travelers educational community-service and adventure programs to 26 destinations around the planet. Machado took one trip to New Orleans to weed and renew plots of land abandoned after Hurricane Katrina, and another to the Florida Keys, where he learned to scuba dive and assist with a coral reef restoration project.

Students scuba dive on a service trip to the Florida Keys with The Road Less Traveled.

“It was a cool opportunity,” says the 21-year-old, who is now a junior at Vanderbilt University. “It was a sweet way to travel and have some sort of purpose, other than just for the sake of traveling, which also made it a little more marketable to the parents.” He came out of that program with a scuba certification and a greater love for marine life, which prompted his decision to major in environmental science and studio art.

Before embarking on a service trip, students like Machado must do their homework to find the right guide, the best program, and the place that suits their goals. (See “Know Before You Go” sidebar for more tips.) For Machado, The Road Less Traveled was the best choice. From providing the chance to live with the Maasai people in Tanzania to establishing work opportunities with communities in the high Andes, the Illinois-based organization is known for educating students on global perspectives and for setting a high standard for safety protocols—a top priority for parents sending their kids off to another part of the world.

“We look very carefully at the country,” says Jim Stein, who founded The Road Less Traveled with his wife, Donna, nearly 30 years ago. “Is it safe? What does the State Department say about it? What is access to health care [like]? Then, we develop the infra-structure of the program. We require our instructors to be Wilderness First Responder certified, go through a rigorous interview process, and attend a nine-day intensive leadership training prior to going out into the field.”

A teen tutors youngsters in Tanzania with The Road Less Traveled.

For 2018, the Steins’ programs include a 15-day high school community-service effort for ongoing Hurricane Harvey relief in Houston, where teens help to repair schools or assist professionals with rebuilding homes and replanting landscapes. Students can also travel to Vietnam to explore the sights of the Sapa Valley before going to Hòa Bình province to help plant trees, facilitate day camps, and teach English to children in the village.

“We see students who come back inspired by a world and a people they never knew existed, walking side by side and learning about other cultures, their education, humor, music, beliefs. These are the cultural experiences that promote understanding,” says Jim.

“The students also become self-​reliant and know they have something more to offer in their schools and communities and the world,” he continues.

Students care for elephants on a trip in Thailand organized by The Road Less Traveled.

The Road Less Traveled is just one of ​many organizations offering life-changing educational travel experiences. Because of the bounty of options, conducting an online search for the volunteer vacation that fits a participant’s goals, skills, and pocketbook can often be overwhelming. The Berkeley-​based service Go Overseas was developed to ease this process; it has been called the TripAdvisor for those who want to study, volunteer, intern, or teach abroad.

To narrow the field, start by scouring reviews and researching information on age restrictions, required skills, time commitments, and the efficacy of programs. “Try and get a sense for the long-lasting impact you’ll have as a volunteer abroad,” says Valerie Stimac, the marketing and content manager for Go Overseas. “There are lots of programs that have surface-level ‘feel good’ volunteer opportunities, but they either don’t make any impact or don’t have a meaningful impact for the community you’re helping.”

Making Connections, Creating Change 

Indeed, “voluntourism”—especially the tourism part—has received its share of criticism in recent years. Naysayers complain of the well-heeled dropping in on developing countries for sheer voyeurism, feeding a “savior complex,” or merely padding a résumé—doing little to benefit the areas they visit. That’s why travel programs through groups like Global Exchange, the noted international human rights organization based in San Francisco, offer cultural experiences that promote understanding, not just tourism. Global Exchange provides Reality Tours, which are designed to educate people about how humans contribute to global problems and then how to effect change responsibly.

“The intention is creating people-to-​people connections, hearing stories, learning about sustainable practices, and then coming home and creating change in your own communities,” says Corina Nolet, Reality Tours director. Some of Global Exchange’s upcoming journeys include a visit to Peru to work with women’s groups that combat human trafficking in the area, as well as a Cuba Pride trip to meet with the local LGBTQ community, and another to explore flora and fauna on the island.

Students and locals pick coffee on Global Exchange’s Nicaragua Fair Trade Reality Tour.

Many religious groups also take a longer-term approach to service trips. Blue Oaks Church in Pleasanton not only engages in service work in the Tri-Valley (such as providing prom nights for special-needs teens and an annual holiday pop-up shop for struggling families) but also partners with Compassion International on church “planting” projects in Ecuador that go beyond mere construction. Many participants sponsor children and families for years before and after visiting the area and serving in whatever capacity is needed. The next trip is planned for July.

“What we value about Compassion International is they have a very holistic view of poverty alleviation,” says Lyssia Porter, the partnerships and communications director for Blue Oaks. “So when they plant a church, they also plant a child-development center that will act as the hub for children in the community to receive resources for medical care, education, and other needs. We have that same holistic view.”

When groups visit Ecuador, Porter says, “it’s the locals who determine what we do based on their needs—things like painting, decking out the development center, working with projects they need extra hands for. We don’t want to be a group of tourists going on a poverty-tour experience. It’s very relational and long term.

“The goal is to impact locals and partner with them, and accomplish their goals,” she continues. “But you can’t experience something like that without it changing aspects of your own life.”

Building a Better World

Providing needed shelter for families in Tijuana has been a life-changing experience for many students on the annual Piedmont mission to Mexico. Piedmont High senior Shannon Murphy, 18, has been on the trip three times and plans to go on her fourth this spring. She says each visit has been enlightening and rewarding.

“When I was 15, going into my freshman year, I was exposed to so much beyond what life is like here,” says Murphy. “Crossing the border, you see all these cardboard boxes and wooden structures up on the hill, and we were like, ‘What is that?’ But people are living in those things, sometimes up to
10 people in a little shack.”

East Bay teens help build houses in Tijuana during Piedmont Community Church’s annual mission to Mexico.

Piedmont Community Church has partnered with Amor Ministries on the mission since the mid-1990s, and student participation has been growing ever since. “The first trip I went on in 1996, we took 17 kids, and we built one house. Last year, we took 230 kids and 65 adults, and built 18 houses,” says Wayne Marzolf of Alameda, a church member, general contractor, and “head rover/chief problem solver.” He works closely with Scott Kail, the church’s pastor of student ministries.

Before the students depart, an advance group of adults and construction experts maps out the projects and organizes the camp. “We set up a huge tent and cooking gear,” says Marzolf. “We take busloads of kids. When we get down there, we go to Costco and buy our food supplies. We don’t bring anything with us. We want to support the local economy.”

Students are assigned tasks according to skill level, and they trade off on kitchen duty and site cleanup. The construction part is hard labor. There’s no electricity in the hills, so workers can’t use power tools, and the conditions are far from plush.

East Bay teens help build houses in Tijuana during Piedmont Community Church’s annual mission to Mexico.

“You either have a sun shower, or take cold water and dump it on your head,” says Marzolf. “[There’s] no running water, no flushing toilets. We camp out in tents. The kids have to be prepared to do that.”

The days can be long, too. “We leave our campsite around 8:30 a.m. and don’t stop until 5 p.m.,” explains Murphy. “The most difficult day by far is day one. It’s slab day. We mix about 50 buckets of concrete to lay our foundation. It is really hard work. Exhausting. And smoothing and making sure your slab looks nice can be frustrating. But in the end, it’s so nice to look down at the finished slab and know that you made that.”

The small structures they build are mere sheds by American standards—11 feet by 22 feet, with two rooms, two windows, and a locking front door. But these shelters are a great improvement for those who have been living in cars or under pallets draped with tarps.

East Bay teens help build houses in Tijuana during Piedmont Community Church’s annual mission to Mexico.

“Follow-up studies have shown that the families we build homes for have an 80 percent better chance of survival—staying in school, staying dry and healthy—than they would have otherwise,” says Kail.

The experience also benefits the teens who participate in the mission. According to Kail, they often call it “the Mexico magic that happens.”

“It’s an experience where all the stars align—emotionally, socially, benevolently, spiritually,” he says. “I’ve heard some of the kids say this is the thing they look forward to every year. We’ve even had some families say they were planning a trip to Italy during that break, but the kids said no. They want to do this.”

“I just love the pure joy we feel from the families we help,” says Murphy. “We’ve had a family thank us and say, ‘If you ever come here and need anywhere to stay, stay with us and bring your family.’ They have nothing, and they’re offering us a place to stay. How amazing is that?” 

Choose Your Own (Service) Adventure

Here’s a sampling of the many international service-travel options out there.

Global Exchange’s Reality Tours: This organization offers travelers an in-depth look at global issues by meeting with people in communities from Afghanistan to the Amazon and learning how to effect change responsibly. There’s less walking and more communicating on these tours, making them appealing to seniors and folks with mobility issues. globalexchange.org/realitytours.

Global Volunteers: The nonprofit—which allows participants to volunteer as a family, group, couple, or individual—applies travelers’ unique skills to community-development projects in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Europe, North America, South America, or the South Pacific. globalvolunteers.org.

Habitat for Humanity: Take a volunteer trip while immersing yourself in a new culture. Programs offer opportunities to build homes and experience vibrant communities in more than 40 countries. habitat.org/volunteer.

The Road Less Traveled: These summer programs are designed for middle school and high school students. Options range from environmental service work and ziplining in Northern California to community service and a safari in Tanzania. theroadlesstraveled.com.

Safe Passage: This humanitarian organization helps break the cycle of poverty for hundreds of children and families in Guatemala City. Travelers can volunteer as a tutor, classroom assistant, or program coordinator. safepassage.org.

Know Before You Go

Prior to embarking on a service-travel experience, take these important steps.

Examine your motives: Are you doing this for the right reasons? Is this a “feel good” trip for yourself or truly a way to make a difference in the world?

Do your homework: Whether your travel program is organized through a local church or community group, a humanitarian-aid nonprofit, or a for-profit travel agency, make sure the trip you pick matches your skills and level of commitment. Research the organization’s history and track record, its focus on safety, and its impact on the regions it serves. Do they employ local citizens? Contribute to the local economy? Provide emergency services for travelers? Go Overseas offers ratings and reviews to help you narrow your search.

Check age restrictions: When trying to volunteer as a family, double-check the minimum age for volunteers in the program you choose. Be mindful of how safe activities are, and find out if there is anything provided for young children to do while you’re volunteering.

Be prepared to rough it: If you are working in impoverished regions, you won’t be staying in comfy hotels. Be ready to adapt, sleep in tents, and eat local foods.

Be culturally sensitive: Before you leave, research local customs and manners. While on your trip, avoid taking stereotype-reinforcing photos and posting on social media. Respect the privacy of those you are trying to help.

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