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Globetrotting for Good: Helping Your Teen Plan a Global Service Trip

Published on: November 25, 2013

Teen holding globe global teen volunteering

Your teen comes to you and says, “I want to volunteer overseas.”

Sounds great, but where to begin? Which program is right, and how do you vet it? Will it be fun? Will your teen make a difference?

The more questions you ask, the more chance your teen’s trip will be a success.

“It’s important to understand the underlying reasons why a teenager wants to participate in a global service program,” Charlotte Blessing, Director of Global Education at Lakeside School in Seattle, says. “Is it in the hope that the trip adds value to a college application or a resume? Is the real motivation to get away from home for some weeks and experience real independence? Does the teen want to learn and serve at the same time?”

Parents should start by asking these important questions: What is my main motivation for sending my child overseas, and what do I want them to get out of it?

Lydia Bassett of Seattle, whose daughter Lucinda Harstrick, 17, a senior at Ballard High School, has gone on several overseas adventures, says, “I recommend that only students who really want to go should pursue this opportunity. If it is the parent’s idea and not the student’s idea, it probably won’t work.”

Manage expectations, be global-minded

There’s pressure for kids today to become “global citizens,” to care about the world around them and attempt to make a difference wherever they go. And being a global citizen means having compassion and feeling a duty to help others who are less fortunate.

However, this point of view can unintentionally set up an inequitable system and perspective that we, as Americans, know what is best for communities in poverty, experts caution.

While they have good intentions, young people often have an idealistic view that they can solve the world’s problems, and it’s important to manage expectations.

Parents and teens should look carefully at how prospective organizations frame the experiences they are offering, says Nancy Bacon, U.S. Executive Director of Sou Digna/I Am Worthy, a program focused on poverty in Brazil.

“It is more appropriate for organizations to frame their projects wholly as educational projects for the American young person, not as a service project meant to improve life at the host site. We can learn, exchange information about our cultures, share ideas, build friendships, and bring great ideas home. It is much more difficult, and sometimes problematic, to make a lasting difference or do something that leads to sustained social change in someone else's society," she says.

Ruth Stark, an international consultant, wrote the book How to Work in Someone Else’s Country. Though the book’s intended audience is international-development professionals, it offers many practical tips applicable to a teen’s first venture working in another country.

For instance, Stark writes, “You will make a difference when you work in a foreign country, but you may not make as much of a difference as you had hoped. . . . Some of the challenges you will face are so complex, so deep rooted, and so intertwined with the social and political environment that a ‘quick fix’ simply isn’t in the cards.”

Ask questions, assess benefits

Young people stand to gain a lot embarking on a global service trip.

“Teens gain leadership and teamwork skills as well as a greater understanding of a new part of the world and what life is really like for people there,” Amanda Lasik, Program Director for Esperanza International, says.

Other potential gains include:

  • Building language skills
  • Gaining confidence and independence
  • Exposure to differences and similarities in other cultures
  • Taking risks and being willing to step out of comfort zones
  • Seeing work make a “tangible difference,” for example the joy expressed by a family whose first house has been built

So how do you assess the quality of a program and its potential benefit to your child?

First, find out what work will be done and with whom.

“A good service program affords the teenager the opportunity to do the service together with members of the community,” Blessing says.

“Too often, a group of teenagers will paint a house or build a pit latrine and the community will ‘simply’ host the group and maybe feed and accommodate them. Often the group spends more time together as a group than with the community members.”

Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions about the mission, goals and philosophy of the organization.

“Is the end goal of the work that their children do supportive of the country’s autonomy and cultural preservation, as well as social justice and environmental sustainability?” asks Chris Fontana, Executive Director of Global Visionaries, a youth-led organization that helps transform young people into socially and environmentally conscious global leaders. “Do the projects that their children work on arise from, and are they directed by, the communities themselves? Simply put . . . whom does the service serve?”

Service organizations should be very clear up front about the specific project the teen will do.

“When I was in Oaxaca with Amigos de las Americas, there was a lack of communication about the budget we had for funding a local project, which caused our entire project to fall through,” Harstrick, the high school senior, says.

Parents and teens also need clear information about the full cost of the trip and opportunities to reduce cost if participation depends on that.

Maile Anderson, 17, also a senior at Ballard High School, says her group Chicks for Chickens, a youth-led effort sponsored by the Blue Nile Children’s Organization, worked together to raise money to finance the trip by having garage sales and car washes as well as successfully applying for a grant at The Mother House Fund.

Other questions to ask:

  • Does the program provide opportunities to interact with members of the community, including intergenerational interactions?
  • Will there be a homestay? Will the teens get to meet other “changemakers” in the community? Do the young people receive training on the historical/social/political/economic context of the country?
  • Does the organization have an excellent safety record, and is it able to educate young people on safety within the country?
  • What happens afterward? Are there opportunities to continue being changemakers back home?

Be prepared

In her book, Stark outlines a few practical tips for those arriving in a foreign country to work:

  • Be clear on expectations: It’s important to know what your counterparts want from you
  • Go at the local pace — it might be brutally slow, but nothing gets accomplished overnight
  • Avoid stereotyping
  • Wear appropriate clothing

If parents and teens vet their program of choice well, and teens go into a service trip with clear expectations, they stand to gain a great deal and have life-changing experiences.

“In the end, working effectively in another culture is not that much different from working effectively with people at home. It is all about respect, sincere caring, and good communication skills,” Stark writes.

“With a trip where you're going out of the country and are away from your family, there will be hard times,” says Harstrick, whose favorite trip was going to Guatemala with Global Visionaries. Her trips have inspired her to continue learning Spanish. “It won’t be easy the entire time, but these experiences are by far the best I've had. These trips changed my outlook on life.”

Elizabeth Ralston is a writer with a public health background. She writes on her blog, The Inspired Philanthropist, and at under “Doing Good.”

Resources for helping your teen plan a global service trip

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