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By Jennifer Michaels

Many parents are finding that volunteer tourism, or “volun-tourism” is a way for regular moms and dads to take the whole clan on a meaningful family vacation that would make Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie proud.

My husband and I decided to join the growing trend of do-gooder tourists. Our decision to do so was based on our realization that our children may not have appreciated everything about our globe-trotting family vacations. Every time we’d hear whining or fighting in the backseat, we’d look at each other, roll our eyes and get even more motivated to find ways to make it “count." After plenty of “Go Fish!” games by many pools, we figured we should educate them about something much more meaningful. After all, isn’t it our responsibility as parents to teach our kids that vacations have more to them than 600-thread-count sheets (those, of course, are pretty nice too!)?

Though traditional voluntourism began in the 1960s, it has picked up speed. A recent survey suggests that millions of Americans have done some form of long-distance volunteering in the past decade. Instead of traveling across the ocean, altruistic travelers are sticking closer to home these days to help neighbors in need.

Family vacation For our family vacation, we chose to hop in our car and drive south from Tampa to Naples, Florida, to participate in a program called “Give Back Getaways” from The Ritz-Carlton Hotel company. We cleaned up the Naples beach with our two sons and a naturalist from the hotel’s Nature’s Wonders program, explaining to them how the natural surroundings of our Florida beaches can get destroyed by litter and trash.

Teaching our kids about the ecology of a place is just as important to us as trying to bribe them into tasting the local flavors. Surprisingly, my children took the clean-up task seriously. They turned the trash-hunt into a beach treasure-hunt of sorts, competing to see who could fill up his bag the quickest. After we collected trash, along with some beach specimens, we headed back to Nature’s Wonders to check out our finds under a microscope.

We then took hotel transportation to the nearby Conservancy of Southwest Florida, where exhibits give a more in-depth look at how discarded items stay on the bottom of the ocean floor. With visual displays that read, “Here Today. Here Tomorrow” the kids could see how the non-decomposing trashjust sits on the ocean floor. We also had another lesson from a naturalist as we took a boat ride through the canals.

There are many other ways to have a hands-on volunteer family vacation in Naples. Animal-lovers can choose from a range of activities, including helping Friends of the Florida Panther Refuge protect the habitat by clearing trails of non-native and invasive plants. Or, the property’s Golf Resort invites guests to accompany hotel staff in an assembly line as they package meals to be distributed locally in Collier County and Southwest Florida. Programs throughout the year at the resort also include making cancer awareness bracelets for Cancer Alliance of Naples (CAN) and building homes with Habitat for Humanity.

Family vacation If you are looking for another good family vacation destination, check out Amelia Island. Amelia Island is one of our favorite Florida destinations for old-time charm. The barrier islands off the coast of northeastern Florida are the perfect place for quiet contemplation. Our children learned how to kayak in tandem with us, teaching them that teamwork is the only way to get ahead in the waters — great for family bonding. There are many opportunities to give back to the local landscape there as well.

If you choose to head south instead, two South Florida resorts have partnered with several non-profit and charity organizations to meet the needs of volunteering vacationers as well:

Marco Island Marriott Resort, Golf Club & Spa
: “Volun-tours” can lend a hand at the local YMCA of Marco Island with landscaping or beautification efforts. Charitable vacationers will receive a 15% discount at the spa to soothe sore muscles.

Doral Golf Resort & Spa: Guests can take part in a morning beach clean-up at the Biscayne Nature Center or sign up for mural painting with Hands on Miami. Guests are “thanked” with a complimentary breakfast to refuel.

There are so many opportunities to help communities during your family vacation. All you have to do is ask. Usually, a concierge or hotel manager can help you find reputable local causes that won’t turn away an offer to help. In the process your kids will learn that it is better to give than to receive. And, maybe the “souvenir” will be the wonderful feelings that you have knowing that you helped along your journey.

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Jennifer Michaels is the National Family Travel Examiner for In addition to her freelance work for and, she currently runs her own Web site,, where she aims to take the hassles out of travel with kids.

Tagged: Family time, Florida

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