Tips + Trends

Volunteer Travel on the Rise: How Habitat for Humanity Lets You Give Back

Combining travel with the work of creating a home for someone in need, might seem like an unexpected union. But that melding is exactly what springs to life through volunteer travel programs such as those offered through Habitat for Humanity’s Global Village trips.

Volunteer tourism is one of the fastest growing trends in travel today. According to a 2008 study, more than 1.6 million volunteer tourists spend around $2 billion annually to pursue well-intentioned endeavors.

These numbers are only expected to rise as each year, approximately 10,000 people volunteer with Habitat for Humanity from 30 countries worldwide.

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Each year, approximately 10,000 people volunteer with Habitat for Humanity from 30 countries worldwide. (Photo: © Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros)

For Habitat for Humanity, roughly half of those do-gooders come from the U.S., like Chelsea Siska of Grand Rapids, Michigan.

While currently working on her MBA, the 28-year-old holds down a full-time human resources job. Still, she finds time to give back to those in need.

“Volunteer travel literally combines two of my favorite things — service work and traveling,” she says. “Not only does the world, and new cultures, enhance a part of my soul, it also allows me to, in turn, breathe life into others in need and make a tangible difference.”

She’s been on two Habitat Global Village trips, to Budapest and Macedonia, and is planning a third this year to Jordan. During the Macedonia trip, Siska worked on the plaster and trenching phase of a 12-unit apartment building.

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Habitat for Humanity has builds organized in places like Budapest. (Photo: © Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein)

“I did everything from mixing the plaster to applying first, second and third coats to the walls and ceilings. We also applied mesh support in between layers and in corners.”

Most of the Global Village trips are nine to 15 days long, and projects are based on the needs of the communities — and not limited to homebuilding. That said, construction skills are not required to volunteer with Habitat.

“There is a variety of work, so people can shift tasks and be comfortable every day,” says Jenna Grubman, Manager of Partner Engagement and Global Volunteer Engagement for the Global Village team.

“We plan out all the logistics for once the volunteers land in country,” says Grubman. “Basically, they need to buy their flight, and there’s a cost for the trip, which is a donation to the host country for the logistics, and they can fundraise all of that. But once they land in country, all their ground transportation, meals, accommodations, orientation to the country and the Habitat program, instruction and tools — that’s all taken care of.”

Volunteers range in age from 16 to 80 and consist of church and school groups, friends and families. “Once volunteers arrive, they only really need to worry about hydrating and showing up each day being ready to work,” says Grubman.

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Volunteer Paul Webb-Walsh with Habitat for Humanity. (Photo: © Habitat for Humanity International/Jason Asteros)

Another volunteer with Global Village, Paul Webb-Walsh, 41, of South Orange, New Jersey, recently returned from his 10th Global Village trip — in Jordan — and is already planning his 11th in October to South Africa.

After his first trip to India in 2010, he fell in love with volunteer travel. “I love getting dirty, getting in with the families, and love that they’re working alongside us,” he says. “It’s taken me to some off-the-beaten-path places I never would’ve gone to. I think it’s a win-win way to see the world.”

On his last build, he worked on a three-bedroom single-family home in the village of Ajlun, Jordan. “The parents were retired after raising seven kids and putting them through school,” he says. The father was in the military and the mother took care of the family, including a child with a disability. They could never really afford a home of their own.

Walsh and his Habitat team, alongside the family, helped build a home the parents can someday pass on to their eldest son and his wife, who will take care of their disabled daughter.

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Jordan remains a hub for Habitat for Humanity projects. (Photo: © Habitat for Humanity International/Ezra Millstein)

Learning how another person lives and the ins and outs of a culture that is completely different than yours will humble you.

Chelsea Siska

Travel can awaken the whole being and makes you take notice of your surroundings. It pushes comfort zones and often presents challenges. Still, every time you do something you didn’t think possible, it broadens your perspective of the world. Especially volunteer travel.

“I don’t think everyone understands how small our little bubbles are … in perspective to the whole world,” says Siska. “I think that sometimes people are scared to learn what’s out there because when you grow up knowing one thing and one way of life, it’s human nature to not want to be uncomfortable or to step outside the box.”

Habitat trips provide a space where people from around the globe can achieve their dreams. No matter what walk of life we come from, we all want similar things, whether it’s having decent housing or meaningful connections with people around us.

“Learning how another person lives and the ins and outs of a culture that is completely different than yours will humble you; it will bring you a certain peace and gratitude that you didn’t even know you could experience until you feel it,” says Siska. “I promise that you’ll feel like a more well-rounded person and that your heart will be full from not only helping those in need, but also learning something about someone that vastly differs from all that you know.”

Habitat volunteers, along with the homeowners they partner with, help put together the pieces that create a house — and the works in progress turn into a home. Everyone wins.