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How to Give Back When Traveling

Is It Possible to Give Back in a Meaningful Way While Traveling?

The idea of a vacation as we know it is "outdated," says Amy Merrill, cofounder of impact-driven travel company Journey. The majority female-founded company creates experiences that aim to "transform both the communities [people] visit and the travelers they engage."

The company has taken around 450 people on "Journeys" in the past 18 months, visiting eight countries and raising $450,000 for schools, homes, refugee relief work, and women's collectives and working with big brands like Red Bull and others to make it happen. The concept is simple: travelers visit another country with the intention of working on a project — such as building homes and renovating schools — in the community they are visiting.

"Our generation is not looking for the old model: to sit on a beach, drink beers and eat buffet, and come home with a sunburn and hangover," Merrill said. "We are looking for inspiration, enrichment, adventure, meaning and purpose, and great people to share it with. Plus, studies show this is actually what recharges you and gives you more fuel for your life."

"Our generation is not looking for the old model: to sit on a beach, drink beers and eat buffet, and come home with a sunburn and hangover."

The company challenges people to "travel with a purpose," but there's a fine line between "voluntourism" and making an actual lasting impact on the communities travelers are visiting. Journey — whose founders have extensive backgrounds in nonprofit organizations and international development work — are very conscious of that fine line.

"We take impact seriously and are very aware of the flaws in voluntourism and 'poverty safaris,'" Merrill said. "We always partner with nonprofits who have a deep local presence, typically local offices and experts who guide the strategy and implementation of each project. This means it can be a true win-win, because then a) the project is necessary and appropriate for the community's needs, b) every project is sustainable and monitored for the long term, and c) travelers learn more because they are truly immersed in local culture, with its challenges and opportunities."

How does Journey work?

Travelers sign up for a six-day trip to one of the locations that is listed as an option (and is open) on the company's site. There are 30-50 people per trip — the average age of a traveler is between 26-40. Trips combine an element of volunteer work with days travelers also have to tour the area, go on excursions, and engage with the community they are visiting. Currently, the majority of trips are to Central America.

Journey has two main projects: home builds (with Techo) and school renovations (with Glasswing International). "Home builds involve local volunteers and families coming together over the course of two days to erect transitional homes from kits, using mainly basic hand tools," Merrill said. "It's extremely challenging, rewarding work and involves a beautiful interchange of local families (who live in extreme poverty), volunteer college students, and Journeyers coming together as one and seeing one another as human beings."

School renovations take a day and a half of work, with the goal to make the building "a healthier, happier place for kids to learn."

How involved is the local community?

"We source projects through our nonprofit partners, which we've vetted and selected carefully on a variety of criteria: track record, innovative approach, tangible projects where we can get hands-on involved, commitment to sustainable/responsible approach," Merrill said. "I take our impact seriously, after spending 10+ years in the nonprofit world.

"We never execute a project without local experts and partners, because we always need to ensure the project is most needed, expertly implemented, and long-term sustainable. On the ground, we let our partners lead those two days — we are in their hands, they line up volunteers and local supplies, and they teach us about the region, the need, and the opportunity for lasting change."

What is special about Journey and social impact travel like it?

For Journey, the social impact projects are "the main event" and, most importantly, are sustainable projects that are implemented with local partners. And according to those who've experienced these trips firsthand, what makes this type of travel stand out are the people involved.

"Beginning a trip with impact work is not only good for the world and increases understanding and empathy, but it's a canvas for relationships, personal growth, everything that comes after on a group trip. There's a bond that comes through going through a challenging yet rewarding experience together . . . the point of a Journey is to present more questions than answers as you immerse yourself in a new culture, understand a community's needs firsthand, experience how you show up in the face of challenges and opportunities, and gain new perspectives on the world and your place in it."

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