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How to Explore the World and Give Back at the Same Time

Volunteer vacations are a growing trend

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A one-week Discover Corps trip includes three- or four-star hotels, food and all tourist and volunteer activities.
Discover Corps

Exploring striking, picturesque places while on vacation and contributing to meaningful causes are goals that many of us share. But how many of us consider the possibility of combining these desires? Making this possibility a reality is the mission of Discover Corps, which has been running volunteer vacations since 2012. The San Diego-based organization enables adventurous and philanthropic travelers to experience and make a difference in exotic destinations such as Tanzania, Peru, South Africa, Thailand and Cuba.

The volunteer projects that Discover Corps offers are both varied and unusual. You can bond with sea lions and sea turtles while helping out at a tortoise reserve in the Galápagos Islands; handle and collect data on endangered manatees in lagoons and rivers in Belize, as well as learn to check water salinity; and get to know youths in Cuba while assisting them with art projects and participating in sports. One program in Peru, Discover Corps founder Andrew Motiwalla says, has guests prepare a meal in an orphanage.

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Motiwalla understands, on a personal level, the value of experiencing a country not just as a tourist but by living like a local; he was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras for a couple of years in the 1990s. After he learned so much from the community members, what immediately came to his mind was, How can you make travel have that — give you a reason to be there?  When you have that sense of purpose, Motiwalla says, “the doors and the hearts of the local people open to you, and it’s a beautiful experience.”

Fast-forward many years later, when Motiwalla began taking vacations with his immediate and extended family and gained a strong appreciation of the bonds that multigenerational vacations help form. Thus, Discover Corps was set in motion.

“We have expert local guides in all these places and develop itineraries in partnership with them,” Motiwalla says. “Our guests don’t want to just see tourist stuff.” With that in mind, Discover Corps staffers make sure to give travelers experiences that go below the surface. So they may have meals in local people’s houses, as well as cook with them; visit the home of a shaman in Peru; or, in Cuba, have lunch on a farm and go to a local artist’s residence for cocktails, where they learn what it’s like to be an artist in a country long closed off to Americans. (U.S. residents make up 98 percent of Discover Corps’ clientele.)

Having an average group size of 10 people on its trips is an advantage, Motiwalla says, as this enables the organization to provide “a really authentic experience and to do off-the-beaten-path activities.” Without large numbers of guests, Discover Corps can tailor programs to individual travelers’ interests.

Important consideration

An important consideration when designing the programs, Motiwalla says, is that they cater to people of all ages. Staff members take care to ensure that when it comes to the activities, “the overall intensity level is never extreme; it’s either moderate or easy.”

So what Discover Corps programs are best for older folks? Motiwalla recommends the ones in Cuba, Peru, Thailand and Tanzania, as these all entail working with students in classrooms to help them learn and practice their English-language skills. This activity is ideal for older people, he says, because they are more patient and “understand the value of seeing life through the eyes of a child.” He notes that Discover Corps’ older guests have a wealth of knowledge and experience to offer and enjoy sharing it.

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A big fan of the company is AARP member Barbara Gage, 68, of Huntersville, N.C. She traveled last year with Discover Corps to Costa Rica, to participate in the sea turtle program. “I have always loved marine life, especially sea turtles,” Gage says. She immediately took to the volunteer activities, which included releasing baby turtles into the ocean; going on night patrols to look for females laying eggs; and guarding the hatchery, to make sure other animals didn’t get in.

Similar to taking a vacation arranged by a large tour company, travelers with Discover Corps pay an all-inclusive price (most programs are seven to 10 days). A one-week trip, which includes three- or four-star hotels, food, all tourist and volunteer activities, and lectures from experts in fields like ecology, runs about $2,500 per person. To see all the destination packages, go to

There are a wealth of other organizations that enable older adults to contribute to the world. Global Vision International, based in Boston (, connects people 50 and older with critical missions overseas, including child care, wildlife conservation and teaching. With headquarters in New York, Projects Abroad ( offers volunteers opportunities to get involved in activities such as archaeology. Those interested in U.S. projects can check out VolunteerMatch (

In addition, International Volunteer HQ offers programs in Asia, Europe, Africa, South America, Central America and the Caribbean. Go to for more information.

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