Best Summer Volunteer Programs for High School Students
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Best Summer Volunteer Programs for High School Students

Summer may be the best time for high schoolers to volunteer. With no homework obligations, teens have more time to give back. Plus, the weather usually allows for outdoor opportunities that may be more difficult during the winter.

On a practical front, it’s also a mental relief to complete any volunteer requirements before a new school year starts. Teen volunteering had a bit of a boom when many schools began requiring it for graduation. Service work also is often expected on college applications for university-bound students.

Still, the real reasons for volunteering are clear – and much deeper. The University of Oxford  found that volunteering helps teens make social connections and reduce anxiety. Service work also has many other benefits. This includes the chance to find your life’s purpose and to create a service-oriented mindset.

A Rustic Pathways student reads to a child in Fiji.

A Rustic Pathways student reads to a child in Fiji.

When the pandemic happened, trends in volunteering changed. Older people decreased their volunteer work. But the good news is that teens and young adults in Generation Z stepped to fill the gaps left behind.

Once you decide to volunteer, it can be tough to decide which volunteer opportunity is the best for you. It helps to know the difference between meaningful community service and busy work.

How to Pick a Summer Volunteer Program

The first step in picking a volunteer project is to find one that makes a real impact. You can check to see if:

  • The work is needed and the help is appreciated.
  • The local community is involved.
  • There’s proper oversight.
  • The service is accompanied with lessons about the community where you’re serving.

Rustic Pathways relies on long-time partnerships to meet these criteria. In countries like Peru, Costa Rica, Fiji and Thailand, local community leaders select projects that best benefit their communities.

How are the Volunteer Opportunities for Teens Set Up?

A project for the Pura Vida Service program in Costa Rica may work like this:

  • Our program manager reaches out to community leaders in the town of La Fortuna.
  • Community members discuss what may be good projects for the next summer.
  • Local experts are consulted about the scope of the projects. This may include people ranging from plumbers to botanists.
  • Tasks are broken down into steps so each travel week a new group of teen travelers can pick up where the last group stopped.
  • The cost for supplies is estimated and added to the program cost for the traveling students.
  • Supplies are purchased so they’re ready to go.
  • Staff is put in place to oversee the work.
  • The students arrive and get to work.
  • At night, the teens discuss their projects and learn more about the impact of what they’re doing.
Rustic Pathways students work on an environmental project in Costa Rica.

Rustic Pathways students work on an environmental project in Costa Rica.

This process has allowed Rustic Pathways students to make a true difference. In Costa Rica, statistics show the students contributed more than 15,746 hours of service in 2023.

The teens built new storerooms for Matapalo Elementary School and a Uvita community center. They collected 6685 sea turtle eggs to protect threatened and endangered species. And they installed a sidewalk and completed painting projects in the community.

If you’re looking to give back, check out these service programs that have similar projects.

What Are the Best Volunteer Programs for This Upcoming Summer?

Volunteer programs that immerse you in another community are a real win-win option. Here are of the best service programs for that:

Volunteer in Peru: Sacred Valley Service

This program takes students to the beautiful Sacred Valley in Peru. There they stay with local villagers and see Machu Picchu. Teens provide about 20 hours of service on a host of projects. This often includes both infrastructure and environmental work.

Previously, students finished a multi-purpose room for the local school. They planted trees in areas deforested by fires and laid water pipes. While working on projects, Country Director Alex Ball says the students enjoy spending time with local villagers and exploring.

Education service with students

Donate your time to working with Peruvian youth on meaningful education initiatives. Copyright: © 2014 Rustic Pathways

“In the Sacred Valley program you get a deep bond with the place where you’re doing service,” Ball said. “You see really remote, spectacular subsistence farming communities. The Sacred Valley is a special place and you really get to know the region.”

Volunteer in Thailand: Come with Nothing

This program has our most service hours. It includes 60 hours of work in three different villages. The service locations are among the most remote places our students travel. Service projects occur in rural areas well outside the northern city of Chiang Mai.

In the past Rustic students have worked at local schools that educate and board hill tribe students. They’ve improved school infrastructure and conducted education enrichment activities. Students also have worked alongside local residents on seasonal gardening and farming projects.

Rustic Pathways students work on infrastructure projects in Thailand.

Rustic Pathways students work on infrastructure projects in Thailand. Credit: Rustic Pathways

These efforts have been ongoing since 2009. Former traveler Maddie Goldberg says working in these communities is quite impactful. She particularly enjoyed interacting with the local villagers during the service projects.

“Although I anticipated this to be a challenge, the Thai children and teachers made me feel completely at home with their endless smiles and welcoming hugs,” Maddie said. “I came to find that no matter how different these countries are, kids are kids. They fill you with joy and are full of joy themselves, no matter where you may travel.”

Volunteer in Costa Rica: Pura Vida Service

This program regularly enrolls more students than any other Rustic Pathways program. During the program, the students provide infrastructure and environmental service in the La Fortuna community.

Groups have helped construct new classrooms and complete upkeep projects, such as painting. If school’s in session, the students do cultural exchange activities with local kids.

On the environmental front, the groups collaborate with organizations like Millon de Arboles (1,000,000 trees). They also work at Arenal Volcano National Park. Projects have included planting trees and improving water access.

Volunteer in Fiji: Sun, Sand and International Service

This program includes 24 hours of service in the beautiful sunny islands of Fiji. Like other programs, tasks focus on infrastructure and the environment. Completed projects include new toilet facilities at various homes and gardening projects for local organic farmers.

Rustic students also have worked with local children at a Village Kids’ Club and cooked and delivered food for women in a local shelter. On the environmental front, the teens support park rangers at Sigatoka Sand Dunes National Park. Projects have included beach cleanups, reforestation projects, and sand dunes stabilization.

Take a break from service and climb some dunes in Fiji. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

Take a break from service and climb some dunes in Fiji. Copyright: © 2016 Rustic Pathways

Overall, these are just four programs with more than 15 hours of service. You can view other options on our service program page. Each of these programs also has adventure and cultural experiences. This ranges from white water rafting to community dance performances. Detailed itineraries are available on our program pages. You can contact one of our travel advisors for more details.

About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Lead Editor

Mary is the Lead Editor at Rustic Pathways. She has been a writer and editor for nearly 20 years. Prior to covering student travel, Mary created content for the music education company J.W. Pepper & Son. She also was a writer and producer at CNN International and a communications director for a social service agency and a K-12 private school.