When Jim and Renee Klein’s oldest grandchild, Zoe, was around 15 years old, they had an idea. For her 16th birthday, they wanted to take her to an international destination of her choosing. Not as a “traditional vacation,” though, but as a volunteer experience. They would work alongside locals, immersed in their culture.
But soon after Zoe turned 16, her cousin Jordan would, too. Then Zoe’s brothers, Zane and Zeth. Then Jordan’s brother, Grayson. The Kleins wanted to volunteer in a foreign country with each of their grandchildren, but they needed buy-in from both sets of parents, or it was a no-go for everyone; a small gesture of equality that defines the Kleins, as grandparents and in their service to others.
Fortunately, the Klein’s children, Angela and Bob, and their spouses, loved the idea and signed off. A year later, Zoe and grandma and grandpa Klein would jet off to Romania to embark on the first of many family trips.
Intergenerational, or multigenerational travel, is not new, but families are finding more options—and more reasons—for traveling together. Whether it’s grandparents, children, and grandchildren or grandparents and a grandchild, intergenerational travel can provide a rare opportunity for families to connect. “They live in California and we live here [in Seattle]. We’re not regular, every-weekend grandparents,” Renee says. “We don’t get that option. We’re not there seeing them all the time, so this gives us time with them, where they really get to know us, and we really get to spend some quality time with them.”
Travel + Service
The Klein’s commitment to international philanthropy dates back to 2000 when they traveled to Peru for what they say was their first “meaningful volunteer experience.” Since they’ve dotted the globe: Romania with Zoe and Ghana with Jordan; Zane chose Peru. They fell in love with Cambodia nine years ago and make it back every 18 months to volunteer and tour the country.
“Jim and I have volunteered abroad for a long time, and we wanted to do this as a way to give our grandkids exposure to other cultures,” Renee says.
A 2008 study estimated that 1.6 million people volunteer while on vacation each year. In 2015, a Virginia Tech travel expert estimated that figure to be 10 million.
Meeting this demand is a robust volunteer travel industry. Globe Aware, a Dallas-based nonprofit, develops short-term international volunteer programs for individuals, families, and groups. From booking airfare to accommodations to coordinating volunteer projects, they partner with bilingual trip guides and local experts living in the destination to ensure an authentic, logistically smooth trip.
Shanti Shahani, communications director for Globe Aware, says voluntourism can be an eye-opening experience.
“You’re in an environment where you’re with people from another culture, working side by side, and adopting the beauties and challenges that come with that culture,” Shahani says.
A typical day may consist of four to six hours of volunteer work, such as building stoves with proper ventilation in an Andean village, in the Klein’s case. On either side of the project is generally an optional leisure activity like an excursion or unscheduled free time.
Keep in mind, if the main purpose of travel is volunteering, both your airfare and program fee, which usually covers the cost of meals, accommodations, in-country transit, and volunteer project expenses, are tax-deductible.
To Adventure and Beyond
If the rigor of voluntourism doesn’t fit your itinerary, adventure travel can still offer a breathtaking perspective and respite from the mundane. Craig Beal, owner of Travel Beyond, a Minnesota-based travel agency specializing in Africa and other international destinations, says the African bush can create a galvanizing experience for families and expose them to a way of life and a part of the world they may rarely see.
“Here in the U.S., everything is manicured and there’s nothing that’s real untouched wilderness, untouched landscapes as far as the eye can see,” Beal says. “When you go to Africa, it’s just so different.”
Growing up, Beal trekked to Africa many times with his parents, and his daughter visited the continent with him throughout her childhood. “It really does get under your skin and gets into your soul and becomes a part of your life,” Beal says.