New York Times – 5 Summer Programs for Teens That Teach Empathy Through Community Service

Amy Tara Koch

July 4, 2018

Teenagers looking for a way to make a difference can turn to a variety of new programs aimed to help them do some good, and get a new appreciation for the world and people around them.

It’s tough to be a teen these days. High school plays out under a social media microscope, one that parents and young people can find difficult to free themselves from and focus instead on what’s really important. To help expand their children’s horizons, boost their empathy and make a difference in their communities, parents (and teens eager to change the world) have several summer programs with community service elements to choose from.

These “travel with purpose” itineraries (often in developing countries) weave community building into cross-cultural adventures to encourage empathy and promote leadership skills that hopefully will extend beyond the trip. All programs earn community service hours and offer financial aid, scholarships, or both.

A Global Experience With Decades of History

With almost seven decades of experience, Putney is the granddaddy of educational student travel. Their service taps into an international network of teachers, farmers, merchants, artisans and other NGOs to allow high schoolers to safely step out of their comfort zone and dive into a different way of life.

“A service-based experience is the difference between just going somewhere and wanting to do good, said Jeff Shumlin, Putney’s co-director. “Kids feel disconnected from public policy and energized by the opportunity to improve the world and represent their version of who Americans really are.” One available trip, Community Service Tanzania, involves collaborating on small scale construction projects like building a classroom, farming, teaching English to local children, market shopping and cooking combined with nature excursions and a stay in a remote Maasai village.

Outdoor Adventures in National Parks and Public Lands

Apogee combines the power of an outdoor experience with achievable challenges and light volunteerism like food banks, orphanages, state parks, and farms, all tied closely to the communities students visit.

Most itineraries are based in the United States, in regions like the Pacific Northwest; central Maine; Cape Cod, Mass.; the central Rocky Mountains; and more. One of the banner service programs is a two week stint in Puerto Rico where volunteers offer hurricane relief and work on community projects like repairing rain forest trails and cleaning trash and debris from coastal wildlife refuges on Vieques Island. Groups are capped at 12 participants.

Living — and Serving — Like Locals

Rustic Pathways has been crafting student adventures for 35 years, and added service-specific trips in the late 1990s. With over 100 itineraries in 19 different countries (they also have spring break and gap year programs), trips range from a week in the Dominican Republic with a single day of service to the more intense Come With Nothing, Go Home Rich bare-bones itinerary in Thailand, where participants travel to Bangkok with just a backpack, gather essentials at the local market and spend three weeks in the mountainous hill tribe region living and working with villagers. There participants build schoolhouses and bathrooms, and dig or repair wells for fresh water.

Blending Tourism and Cultural Appreciation Around the Globe

The popularity of WE Day, a countrywide, stadium-filled celebration of youth activism headlined by names like Selena Gomez, Kelly Clarkson, Nelly and Malala Yousafzai, underscores the power of the ME to WE community service movement. The organization gives children, families and schools (more than 15,000 of them) the tools to make a difference in their neighborhood and the world at large.

For example, the organizations’ summer programs, called “take action camps” (located in Arizona and Canada) and youth volunteer trips to countries like Kenya, Ecuador and India, blend sightseeing and fun with rural community immersion to inspire self discovery and an appreciation for new cultures. In contrast to volunteerism, WE has year-round partnerships with the countries visited so the summer service work (which includes providing food, water and health care to suppressed communities, helping build schools or participate in classes) is part of a larger investment in the community.

Deep Immersion in Cultures at Home and Abroad

Visions is a 30-year veteran of service adventures, their itineraries veering more hard-core immersion (five to seven hours a day, four to five days a week) than in-and-out tour. A longstanding program on offering poverty assistance on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana also focuses on land preservation and infrastructure projects, like building renovations, fence repairs, building wheelchair ramps and schoolhouses. When not working on improving the community, volunteers also enjoy a bounty of cultural activities like attending a powwow, joining in sweat ceremonies, horse riding in Glacier National Park, and connecting with tribal historians and spiritual leaders.