Service trips take families to another world
More parents are taking their children on service trips, from expensive organized tours to church mission trips.
The New York Times
Like many affluent parents, Carolyn Everson, an executive at Facebook, is committed to raising “socially conscious” children, as she puts it.
For that reason she did not hesitate to sign her family up for a trip to Kenya last August with Me to We, a company that offers what its website calls “transformative trips.” At a cost of $4,195 per person (excluding international airfare), guests spend 10 days immersed in African culture while participating in community-development programs and living in “rustic, luxury cottages.”
In Kenya, Everson’s family, which includes 9-year-old twins, carried jugs of water on their backs alongside tribal women and helped build a school. They learned beading, planted trees and listened to lectures over leisurely dinners.
In Everson’s view, the trip was a success. “My daughters are growing up in a very privileged town,” said the Montclair, N.J., resident.“This trip was a chance for us, as a family, to play a global role in helping others while also expanding our worldview.”
Travel — “fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness” in the words of Mark Twain — has long been a way to broaden one’s perspective. What is changing, at least for some parents, is the kind of trip that offers such broadening.
A decade ago it was enough to peer into the Grand Canyon or bike through Tuscany. Now, galvanized by disasters like Hurricane Katrina and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and aware of the insulating effects of wealth, many parents are using travel to deliver to their children potent doses of real life.
Some parents, particularly those who are doctors or educators with a toehold in a foreign community, design family volunteer trips themselves.
Others are signing on to organizations like Me to We, a partner company of the children’s rights charity Free the Children. And while it is hard to miss the incongruity in spending thousands of dollars to inoculate children against the scourge of privilege, traveling abroad costs money, period; for families with limited time and a desire to help, these organizations fill an obvious need.
Me to We has seen family participation double over the last few years. Globe Aware, which offers trips to 15 countries, had a 22 percent increase in the number of families signing up in the first half of 2012 compared with the same period last year. Chris Clum, executive director of Experience Missions, which arranges Christian mission trips around the world, estimates that 50 percent of the 3,000 to 4,000 volunteers who travel with his 10-year-old organization each year are now families.
Not surprisingly, the effects of children’s involvement in service travel are showing up in areas like education.
“Everyone in admissions started seeing essays about these volunteering trips six or seven years ago,” said Bev Taylor, the founder of the Ivy Coach, a New York-based college-admissions counseling service. “Now we have to tell kids not to write about them.”
Be prepared for the unexpected
While exposure to different social and economic conditions may be the point of these trips, it’s hard to control just how intense the new experiences will be.
Frank and Camilla Baer will never forget their first days in Nairobi last August with their daughter, Elisa, then 16, and son, Oliver, 12. Before volunteering with Me to We, they took a tour through the city’s slums.
“None of us had ever seen poverty like it,” Baer recalled. “We spent the morning walking through these dirt-covered streets, crowded with people living in shacks. It was a pretty serious thing for us to see on one of our first days there.”
Many of the families and volunteer leaders said that nothing can truly prepare someone unaccustomed to poverty for the deprivation common in the developing world.
Still, there are steps one can take to mitigate the shock.
Before going, “discuss the challenges and explain that the trip could be heartbreaking at times, scary and even difficult,” said Ellen Sachs Alter, a psychologist who recently opened a practice after more than a decade with the Family Institute at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. “Assure them that you will all confront it together.”
Being prepared for cultural tics helps, too, though for Heather Deyo, such knowledge didn’t soften any blows. Deyo, whose childhood was spent in South Africa, returned with her four children in 2006 when her eldest was 12.
“The children kept pointing out to me how happy the African kids seemed because they were all smiling,” she recalled. “As someone who had lived there I explained to them that smiling is a big part of their culture, but it didn’t mean they weren’t also hungry and dying.”
“I draw the line at my kids seeing a dead body,” said Deyo, who, since arriving in South Africa has established her own mission project on the Eastern Cape. “My son has sadly seen women dying of AIDS and the most intense poverty. I don’t want it to be about shock and awe, but this is a reality none of us should ignore.”
When they return, many youths want to find a way to continue the work they were doing.
But re-creating an extreme and exotic experience can be challenging. Not only are there time constraints, with academics and athletics often crowding out everything else, but volunteering in, say, a local soup kitchen is far less exciting than tutoring children in a bush schoolhouse.
“They have worked on tangible, recognizable projects, like building a school in Africa,” said Phil Kassen, director of the Little Red Schoolhouse and Elisabeth Irwin High School in New York. “It is hard to find something in our own city that is comparable.”
Nevertheless, without exception, all of the children interviewed spoke of the lasting impact their travels have had on them. Some wanted to pursue jobs in international public service; others were interested in emergency medicine.
“Kids get such a bad rap for being selfish and spoiled these days,” Deyo said. “But if you do something that helps shift their perspective, it is unbelievable how they rise to the occasion.”