Here are a few gift ideas you may not have considered this holiday season: a conservation safari in South Africa. The opportunity to grow organic coffee with local farmers in Costa Rica. Waking up on a Thai elephant sanctuary, with gentle giants wandering right past your window.
The gift of travel is like no other, and when combined with volunteering on a grassroots project, it's nothing short of life-changing. Check out 10 diverse service-learning experiences, hand-picked by GLA staff, that could make this holiday gifting season your best one ever.
1) For the art-loving foodie: Spain
Spain: Cultural Odyssey™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights | On this Cultural Odyssey, students travel to five different cities in Spain and witness Roman ruins, jewels of Jewish and Islamic architecture, Gothic cathedrals, museums filled with European classics and the work of Dali, Gaudi and Picasso. While experiencing every must-see in Spain as well as its off-the-beaten-path sights, students peer beyond its reputation as a popular tourism destination and consider the country’s modern-day role as a major epicenter of immigration, melting pot of cultures and confluence of diverse faiths.
Surprise Factor | Students visit an urban Impact Hub and community garden, two examples of how ideas for social innovation, youth activism and sustainability have come to fruition in modern Spain.
2) For the aspiring National Geographic photographer: Cuba
Cuba: Culture in Focus™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights |From dawn to past midnight, street life in Havana is a ballet in constant motion, alive with the pulse of the island’s rich culture. Venture out to specially selected locations to meet the Cuban people and tell the stories of present-day Cuba: Dance studios, private homes, bustling Havana neighborhoods and rural Viñales provide wonderful photographic backdrops and opportunities to meet Cubans from all walks of life.
Surprise Factor | Visit Muraleando, a community art organization that, in its two-and-a-half years of existence, has managed to physically transform a struggling barrio into a People’s Art Gallery.
3) For the first-time traveler: Costa Rica
Costa Rica: Empowering Rainforest Communities™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights | Costa Rica is far enough from home to feel a world away, but near enough that the flight is just a mere few hours. On this program, students live in a secluded nature wonderland off the tourist path, where howler monkeys sing, locals still pan for gold and macaws soar above the canopy. This ecological treasure trove is the perfect, peaceful setting to ease into learning about sustainable community development and environmental conservation while volunteering with the warm village families of Rancho Quemado.
Surprise Factor | You're likely to spot endangered jaguars and tapirs while hiking through the rainforest! Take a day off service to go ziplining and rappelling through lush vistas, and canoe to Rio Claro, where waterfalls and a rope swing await thrill seekers.
4) For the teen who's a people-person: The Philippines
Philippines: The Initiative for Children™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights | Filipinos and Filipinas are known for their enthusiastic hospitality, charismatic wit and community approach to everything: Wander into any gathering here, and you’ll instantly be swept up into the aromas of traditional food served family style, and easygoing interactions among generations. Made of 7,000 islands featuring tropical beaches to sprawling cities to rice terraced mountains, the Philippines is a melting pot of Spanish influences, modern Western lifestyles and its own indigenous ways.
Surprise Factor | Work with the Philippine Toy Library on their mission to convert idle spaces in barangays—inner city barrios—into fun and educational spaces that keep kids off the streets.
5) For the committed changemaker: Haiti
Haiti: Global Health Initiative™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights |Students on this program spend 4-5 days helping construct a permanent shelter using innovative bottle-building techniques, upgrading clean water systems for a school, and having the special opportunity to shadow local doctors providing pro bono consultations to at-risk communities.
Surprise Factor | Haiti’s public health challenges stem largely from infrastructural weaknesses and other social issues, so spend some time assisting medical practitioners, but also work to address society’s larger, health-related concerns: unsafe housing, lack of educational infrastructure, food shortages, proliferation of waterborne diseases and more.
6) For the aspiring doctor: Ghana
Ghana: Foundations of Public Health™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights | Partner with local builders to construct a brand new composting toilet from start to finish for a family in need. The composting toilet will help prevent the spread of disease and can even help local girls stay in school. It also produces high-quality fertilizer that can increase crop yields and sustain nutritious diets. Accompany community health nurses to a nearby rural community, where they provide regular maternal and neonatal health checkups for mothers and newborn babies. Observe and ask questions as the babies are weighed under a tree in this open-air clinic.
Surprise Factor | Living steps away from Ghana’s southern coast means most mornings you’ll wake up to the sights and sounds of fishermen on the beach. Join them in pulling in the nets!
7) For those happiest in hiking boots on a trail.
Peru: Children of the Andes™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights | Challenge yourself on a three-day trek to Machu Picchu, camping in spots where ancient explorers also camped. You’ll hike through several microclimates and take in views that are nothing short of awe-inspiring. Spend time in school classrooms assisting in various ways, including teaching English, the arts, and sports; and lead after-school activities that facilitate learning and fun.
Surprise Factor | Learn firsthand about the challenges children face attending school in the Sacred Valley. Most families residing here are subsistence farmers who survive on their agricultural production, and there are heavy financial constraints to affording early childhood education. Understand the web of social issues associated with access to education for youth around the world, and consider ways you can help make a difference.
8) For the wild at heart: South Africa
South Africa: Safari Service Expedition™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights | Experience life on Somkhanda Game Reserve, the only community-owned reserve that’s home to Africa’s “Big Five”—the African lion, African leopard, African elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino. By night, you’ll live at a rustic Home Base on the reserve’s perimeter, hearing Zulu stories and learning about tribal culture; by day, shadow wildlife conservationists in the South African bush
Surprise Factor | Somkhanda Game Reserve, where students live and volunteer, is unique for being community-operated: The land is owned by the South African Gumbi tribe, and members of the tribe work on all its teams, including wildlife monitoring and conservation. In contrast, many other commercial game reserves forcibly displace the indigenous communities that live nearby in favor of transforming the land to attract tourism. Fortunately, Somkhanda celebrates its native residents, and you’ll learn how these individuals treat wildlife protection not only as their profession, but as a matter of personal and cultural importance.
9) For the history buff: China
China: Mandarin Service Adventure™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights |From the moment you step into the Home Base in Shaxi (pronounced “sha-shee”), you’ll be swept into the magic of living in a village out of time. Based in the Himalayan foothills that border Tibet, Shaxi offers the opportunity to live in a locally-owned guesthouse built of intricate woodwork, and interact with the indigenous community
Surprise Factor | Participate in a physical service project that restores these sites and helps the ancient town’s global image. You’ll also volunteer on family farms, helping with harvesting and learning how residents of Shaxi’s beautiful valley are working to make their food systems more sustainable and biodynamic.
10) For the animal lover: Brazil
Brazil: Preserving the Amazon™ | Enroll by December 17 to receive a free holiday gift!
Highlights | What traveler hasn't imagined a trip to the Amazon, to admire the towering canopy teeming with wildlife and the incredible river itself? Surprisingly, on a waterway whose size is legendary, it’s actually the little things that make it special: Canoeing through a flooded forest, cooking food over a bonfire, taking a dip behind Home Base, waking to the sounds of howler monkeys and squawking parrots.
Surprise Factor | Although Brazil has a reputation of being a lively, tropical paradise, it’s also a developing country with an enormous wealth gap that affects remote communities, especially those living on the Amazon. Help achieve social change by working on an infrastructure project: You might refurbish a school, fix a water tower or improve access to a similar community resource.