Almost Fearless

Ways To Volunteer While Traveling

Working for free? Are you mad?

Well, put like that, it does sound a bit silly.

Being on the road for a while, catering to the needs of a small army with inconsistent demands while in alien territory can be hugely demanding, but there’s something to be said for stepping up and doing something different. It felt a bit like going back to work after maternity leave;  suddenly you realize that you are useful and capable of things outside of the family. And guess what? It actually feels good.

To be fair, I’ve always done voluntary work. I am greedy to have experiences for which my paid work doesn’t allow and spending a few hours with people I wouldn’t usually cross paths with excites me. Taking the children along to learn about how great it feels to put other peoples’ needs first is gold.

We all know you have to be careful; good intentions can be misplaced. We’ve all heard of the growth market ‘Voluntourism’. It isn’t necessarily a bad thing; some projects literally can’t run without volunteers or the income they bring. Will it take jobs away from the locals? Where volunteering with children is concerned, will the constant flow of strangers coming through the project cause attachment issues? In these cases it is important to research for yourself and decide carefully.

For this reason, my own family likes engaging in ‘grassroots’ activities . It can be anything: picking up litter on a beach in Cambodia, walking dogs at an animal sanctuary in Ko Lanta. It doesn’t need to be a costly package tour or be the purpose of your trip. For us,  volunteering is a bonus activity that deeply enriches our travels.

With a bit of planning and research, it is easy to get the children involved.

We use (other volunteer websites are out there too – HelpX and Helpstay- though I’ve not used these) For $38USD a year you can search hosts around the world that need volunteers to help with their projects and you choose which suits your interests. You can even specify that you are a family when registering, so you know the placement will be appropriate.

For a few hours a day you earn your board and food, which is great for budget travelers. In our case , we had to pay $5USD a day for food, though this is common in developing countries. We were happy to do this as it ensured the school did not spend their precious resources catering to the volunteers when they could spend that money on teachers wages and notebooks.

As a family of four, my husband and our two boys aged six and eight, worked at a school in the Nepalese Himalayas doing menial but necessary stuff. Gardening, litter picking, shopping and plumbing. Our children were usually happy to get involved and loved being surrounded by other children.

Accommodation and food were basic, as you would expect at the top of a mountain, but we woke up every morning for coffee with the other volunteers to sit on an outcrop and take stock of how it felt to live on the roof of the world.

There was a breathtaking view of the Himalayan mountain range and specifically the treacherous Annapurna II and Manaslu- the eighth highest mountain in the world. We watched the eagles circle below us and the rising sun change the color of the mountain ranges while our boys ran around with the goats and chickens.  They loved it so much they wanted to live there.

Being thrown into a remote community, we quickly got to know locals in the village. During our terrifying bus journey up the mountain, we were invited round to our new friends’ house for dinner. The slaughtering of a goat in our honor was something we will never forget; the warmth of the hospitality was mind blowing, despite the language barrier. We promised to return with the children one day for more goat curry (next time without the brains, hopefully). Without our placement, there is no way we would have found these friends for life.

Another way we found projects was via Facebook.

When we arrived in LA, I was saddened to see so many people living on the streets in one of richest cities in the world. A Facebook stranger recommended a project called ‘Lunch on Me’ in Skid Row.

I had worked with homeless people in the UK, but pulling up in the car with my children in tow feltuncomfortable. It was edgy.

Mike looked at me, checking inwas this actually a good idea? We might have turned around if we hadn’t been greeted by a group of enthusiastic people standing outside, waving. They were excited to have a family join them for food distribution at Gladys Park and any doubts we had quickly evaporated.

Ray, the inspirational young woman who ran the project couldn’t wait to involve the children, cheerfully showing them how to dish out the rice. She introduced us to people and explained how she helped in soup kitchens with her mother when she was little. Ray has since started up her own charity and made it clear how important it was for the next generation to share a passion for this work. The issue is homelessness is clearly not going away anytime soon.

We met the residents of the urban tent city and heard their stories- some lost everything due to mental health issues, sleep in the shelter and like to help with the food distribution. Some people lost their jobs and homes and sleep in tents hiding their young children away for fear that they will be removed by social services.

We handed out plates of fresh, healthy food that had been donated in its raw form by local organic supermarkets. In the midst of this we made sure to  stop to chat and give these incredible humans a few minutes of our time.

Some people couldn’t leave their tent to collect the food due to mobility issues. Some asked for food for their children who were riding around on tricycles in the yard. It reminded me of Dunkirk Refugee camp where I had worked the year before; but to get to this new place, I had only to drive through Beverly Hills.

Once outside, our boys stayed by Mike’s side, a little shy as so many people came up to say hello to them. Buoyed by collective enthusiasm, they warmed up and despite the initial trepidation we left feeling light as a feather. The fact we had done something, instead of passively acknowledging the homeless issue in LA, felt good.

Another source of finding voluntary opportunities while traveling is by searching Google and Pinterest for travel blogs.

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I'm passionate about travel and spending my time in communities abroad to volunteer. Sometimes not everything goes to plan but time and time again, I always find myself reflecting on the journey and not regretting it. When it's time to embark on a new journey, I'm encouraged by the thought that when I return home, I'll be a better person. I'll be the same me but a better version. While in Mwandi, a small village in Zambia, I had to quickly remind myself that my purpose there was not to inundate them with my American ways but to embrace what they had to offer me. I had to leave my know it all attitude at the front door if I was going to do this right. I was there to learn and be of service. It was time for me to take a back seat and I'm so glad I did. Special thanks to @sheswanderful and @unearththeworld for the opportunity. #impacttravel #livelife #friend #giveback #africa #dogood #acceptance #travel #photography #sheswanderful #unearththeworld

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When my family was in Siem Reap, I looked for things to do in the local area. I happened to read that Angkor Hospital for Children needed blood donations; you could show up anytime. It was quick and after a short health examination I was reassuringly shown that the needles came from sealed, sterile packets to ensure my safety. The donation lasted just a few minutes and I got a free t-shirt, which was a fun bonus, but also served as advertising to other travelers.

Most developing countries need blood, especially where there is a cultural stigma against donating. You can easily google the details for local hospitals- but please ensure that you check the sterility of the kit when you get there.

There are plenty of ways to make a difference, even in a small way, wherever you are. It is easy to find if you keep your mind open to it and valuable in so many ways.

We have found that volunteering connects you to the local community in a more profound way than if you were to just pass through. It can save you money on your accommodation expenses and your children learn by example. We can show them the value of giving and being grateful for the privilege of being the ones to give. It means we raise empathetic, confident and resourceful children and we need this in our world now more than ever.


Sara Wheeler

Sara Wheeler is 39, from the UK and used to love her home in Bristol, as well as her job in Homelessness. She left all this to take her 6 and 8 year old boys on a 15 month round the world trip with her husband.

Sara is a pro at Hide 7 Seek, writes a blog, crochets, taxidermy and aims to live off grid on her return to the UK.

Follow her adventures on Facebook (The Wheelers on the Bus) Instagram (same name) and

1 comment

  • Anyone got any links or ideas for Australia? My daughter is travelling there soon and wants to do more than travel. Thanks