One of the great things to do together as a family is volunteering.
One of the great things to do together as a family is volunteering.

So, what with the US State Department Travel Alert, the drug cartel shootings and kidnappings, and the Swine Flu outbreak, where would you want to go for Spring Break? Mexico, of course. And that’s exactly what I did with my family last week. I led a multigenerational group (teens to late 60s and every decade in between) to work at two orphanages in Colima, Colima, Mexico. It was less cavalier, and certainly less risky, than it sounds. We were far away from the US border or any tourist areas. Colima has had no problems with drug shootings or kidnappings. Although it is a beautiful city, it is not a tourist draw, so less likely to be a place for kidnappers to seek Americans. We didn’t hear about the Swine flu until we returned home, so we were blissfully unaware of that risk. In truth, I felt perfectly safe the entire week—safer, in fact, than I feel in most US cities. (I talked with a couple of Mexicans who expressed fear of traveling to the US because of “all the mass shootings”, so I suppose the media focus on foreign dangers is not just an American obsession.)

I lead groups to work in orphanages pretty regularly, and usually about half the participants are families. Of course, our presence, energy, work, and money help the orphanage and the kids, but I always leave feeling like the families themselves are the real beneficiaries. There is truly nothing like volunteering with your kids to help you bond as a family. It’s an opportunity to see your child in a different light, and maybe, just maybe, your child might see you in a different light as well.

In my opinion, the best volunteer type “vacation” is to work in an orphanage. I don’t say this just because my passion is to help kids whose parents aren’t in the picture, but also from a very practical standpoint. The needs at orphanages are so diverse that all skill levels can really contribute. There is almost always construction type needs for those people with a talent for hammers, drills, and saws, but there is also almost always the need for painting, sanding, and sewing for those who prefer a brush, sandpaper, or needle. Of course, there is always a need for people that want to work with kids doing crafts, playing games, or teaching English. Anyone from 7 to 70 can truly participate.

This year we went back to an orphanage we first visited three years ago. Seeing the recognition in the kids’ eyes when they first saw us was neat. It was especially heart warming to see my youngest daughter renew a friendship with Andrea, a girl that our family sponsors. My daughter has had this girl’s picture posted on her bulletin board for three years, but I didn’t know if Andrea would remember any of us. When she saw my daughter, her eyes lit up, and the two of them hugged and laughed and “communicated” just fine without many shared words.

Each trip is a little different, but usually we do work projects in the morning and work/play with the kids in the afternoon. The kids were out of school the week we were there, so the older ones sometimes “helped” us with our work. Truthfully, a few of them were actually a big help. We had two skilled carpenters amongst us, so one project was to build room dividers and shelves. For the less skilled, we sanded and painted metal exterior doors, divided and organized a room full of donated clothes according to size and gender, and painted the shelves once built. In the afternoon, we had craft projects and games for the children. At the main orphanage site there were about 22 children between the ages of 1-5 and 64 children roughly between the ages of 6-13. At the satellite orphanage site, there were 14 children mostly under 10.

I love to travel, so for me it’s an added bonus that we get to see another part of the world. Everyone always asks about the food, and I’m sure we would sound more saintly, if I didn’t tell the truth. But I’m not gunning for sainthood, and the truth is the food is one of the highlights. We ate breakfast and lunch at the orphanage and dinner on the town. The orphanage food was healthy, delicious, and filling. For dinner we ate at typical low cost traditional Mexican restaurants or tacorias. Our goal was to eat on less than $5 per person for dinner, and we easily made our goal, with some to spare. We didn’t have a problem about food safety in part because we were able to ask the orphanage directors where was safe to eat. Of course, we didn’t drink the water, but then no one in Mexico drinks the tap water. In all the trips I’ve led, no one has ever gotten sick from the food or water. (Darn, I may have just jinxed my record by saying that.)

I know some people argue that there is no need to go abroad to find people in need, and I couldn’t agree more. Traveling adds an extra element of fun, and I think being a stranger in a foreign land helps groups bond, but I’d hate to think that these same folks don’t help locally as well. Fortunately, most people who are attracted to volunteer vacations also volunteer at home. In fact, I think that volunteer vacations may spur volunteering at home. The high of giving is pretty darn addictive. The only real downside—and it’s a big one– is that since I’ve been home, the tune to “Chicken Dance” constantly replays in my brain and erupts from my mouth at inopportune times. I now wash dishes humming and shaking to “I don’t want to be a chicken, I don’t want to be a duck, so I’ll shake my butt.” Not a pretty site!


Image credit: Roche Photo