Round-up of summer travel programs for teens in Latin America

In honor of April, National Volunteer Month, here is a guest post by my friend, Neshama Abraham, who just went through the process of signing up her teenage daughters for summer volunteer programs. Here’s what she learned:

PHOTO: courtesy Campfire Creative; Ben Lewis and Alex Alonso of San Jose, California, builds a retaining wall at the local school in Ollantaytambo, Peru during a two week service trip last summer.

Guest Post By Neshama Abraham

In March 2014, First Lady Michelle Obama spoke from China and emphasized the importance of youth traveling abroad to become global citizens:

“Immersion in another country’s culture does more than help a student’s job prospects,” she said. “It’s also about shaping the future of your countries and of the world we all share. Because, when it comes to the defining challenges of our time – whether it’s climate change or economic opportunity or the spread of nuclear weapons – these are shared challenges. And no one country can confront them alone. The only way forward is together.”

Indeed, participants describe a boost to their self-confidence, improved language skills, and a new world-view from their volunteering abroad. Miriam McQuade, a participant in a Walking Tree Travel, a Denver, Colorado-based company whose mission is to “inspire individuals to become global citizens,” says, “My friends who knew me before the trip have told me that since I returned, I have changed from a timid bystander to a powerful, self-aware human being. I love who I am for the first time in my life.”

McQuade traveled abroad while a high school student in California, and went to University of California at Berkeley to study biology. She was last seen boarding a plane to work in a medical clinic in Senegal after graduation.

Not Too Late for this Summer – Trips Are Still Filling Up

Many community service programs still have openings for applications that are received during April. Walking Tree Travel, named for a type of tree whose root system grows or “walks” toward more abundant water or sunshine. The company was founded by three childhood friends who themselves traveled abroad together while in high school.

Walking Tree Travel has openings for this summer on programs to Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador, Guatemala, Senegal, Spain and China ranging from one to four weeks with community service ranging from 30 to 90 hours per program. Students spend half their time in small villages doing community service, while living, sharing meals, celebrating holidays and speaking the local language with a host family. The other half of the trip is spent traveling to adventure destinations where teens hike, bike, kayak, surf, etc. or (303) 242-8541.

AFS – Formerly American Field Service – Non-profit organization based in New York City that has led intercultural learning and international high school exchange programs for more than 65 years in 40 countries with 4,000 volunteers nationwide. AFS Community Service programs that are still available include trips to Costa Rica, Ghana, and Panama Paraguay, and Thailand. Their summer program application deadline is April 25, 2014. or 1-800-237-4636 (1-800-AFS-INFO)

AMIGOS de las Americas – Houston, Texas-based organization that hosts programs for young adults to volunteer abroad. Volunteer opportunities focus on youth leadership training and community development in Latin America. AMIGOS operates high school programs in nine countries throughout the Americas, in Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and Paraguay. Their summer programs range from four to nine weeks between June and August. or (713) 782-5290

Where There Be Dragons – Based in Boulder, Colorado, and running courses since 1994. Named after dragons to symbolize rugged and profound learning experiences and encourage participants to travel beyond the familiar, to live for adventure, exploration and knowledge. They host travel adventures in China, Southeast Asia (Burma, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos and Thailand), the Himalayas (Nepal and North India), Latin America (Bolivia, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru), Africa (Morocco, Rwanda, Senegal and Madagascar) and the Middle East (Jordan). Check out their stunning 16-minute video created by 100 students and instructors in 15 countries on 4 continents. or (303) 413-0822.

Paying for the Trip

For some, after applying, the final hurdle can be the cost of the trip. Knowing that finances may be an issue for families, summer abroad companies offer extensive guidance on how students can raise the money for their trip. There are lots of ways that students can raise money for their trip so this isn’t something you should be worrying about. For example, you could buy some custom wristbands from a website like to sell to family and friends. The money from the sales can then go towards your trip. It’s a great way to spread the word about your fundraising project as well as promoting awareness for the cause.

There are also lots of companies that can help with fundraising too. The GoFundMe page is often the go-to for many people when it comes to fundraising. On top of this, Walking Tree Travel and AFS dedicate a section of their website to fundraising. Walking Tree offers Journalism Fellowships where students receive scholarships by writing blogs about their experience. Some AFS local chapters also offer scholarships for blogging. Walking Tree also offers a coffee fundraiser in a partnership with an organic Costa Rican coffee grower. For every pound bag of coffee sold for $20, half goes to the family farm and $10 towards the teen’s trip. Parents and students report that, in addition to the trip abroad itself, participants raising their own funds was equally valuable as an experience and life-long skill. So perhaps your family is wanting to look into fundraising some money for the less fortunate, if this is the case you could look into sites like to help you along your journey.

Some students, like Stephanie Morefield, utilized Walking Tree Travel’s fundraising techniques to pay for her entire program. More about her story here. While an overseas community service project may be expensive, the lifelong memories are invaluable. An added benefit: college admissions advisors say a summer abroad can help a high school student stand apart on a college application, especially if their community service or interest in international affairs is demonstrated as a continued theme in their life.

Raising money can be difficult so choosing your fundraising activities carefully is key. Whether you’ve been looking at high school creative fundraising ideas or you want to do a garage sale at your house, there are lots of ways to make money. Be creative and enjoy it! No matter which trip and country you choose, April is the month for a teen to step outside their regular routine and apply for a community service adventure abroad. This could become the summer of a lifetime.

– Neshama Abraham is a freelance writer based in Boulder, CO, with two teenage daughters who look forward to exploring the world beyond their familiar surroundings this summer.

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