How Teens Can Prepare for Service Travel & Make it Worthwhile
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How Teens Can Prepare for Service Travel & Make it Worthwhile

There are a number of cases where high school students sign up for service programs because they need to fulfill required service hours – or they may be looking for material for a college essay. These are certainly among the valid reasons to try service work. However, we of course hope for more –  some meaningful experiences that inspire teens to keep wanting to give back.

Rustic students work together on a food project in Puerto Rico.

To get to that stage it can be helpful for teens to try a variety of service opportunities and to learn why volunteering work is valuable. This is easier for students who volunteer in different places – both in communities far from home and in those right in their backyard.

Abigail Golden is among the alumni who had this experience. When she traveled with Rustic to Thailand and Cuba, her fire for leadership and service was lit. On her trips, she realized she could work around language barriers and find answers to community issues by closely collaborating with people. This increased her problem-solving skills and her desire to search for answers to challenges.

“In high school there is a pressure to know the answers to questions rather than be the one asking questions,” Golden said. “Rustic Pathways helped me undo that mentality and let me open up to asking and digging deeper.”

When she came home she used her new knowledge to get more involved in school. She joined the swim team and became the leader of a school club, along with generally taking on more leadership roles. When she went to college, she majored in Studio Art but added a Concentration in Community Engagement and Social Change.

Many students follow this path since giving back internationally gives them the confidence to do more when they come home. And it’s not hard to see why this is the case.

Why Service Helps Students

An international service experience often opens up eyes, giving different perspectives on the ways people live around the globe. It’s also in our psychology to feel good when we give back.  A study done in partnership with Volunteermatch is among the resources that have shown this reality in a quantifiable way. Among other things, it found:

  • 93% of volunteers said giving back improved their mood
  • 79% reported lower stress levels
  • 88% indicated their self-esteem increased by volunteering

Get to know the locals as you work alongside them on community service projects. Copyright: © 2013 Rustic Pathways

It’s also been found that volunteerism helps people searching for jobs. Students can certainly pick up new skills through service hours, which will help them down the line. But first they need to find their passion and see all the aspects of service projects from the planning to the implementation of ideas.

Getting Ready for the Journey

Before a student travels, it can help to learn a bit of the language and some details about the country they are visiting. This will enable them to understand the significance of what they are seeing and doing.

It’s also certainly not a bad idea to begin establishing a service mindset before leaving home. Students can do this by getting involved. There are innumerable places where they can try volunteer work. Here are just a few ideas to get the process rolling:

Emergency services:

The Red Cross – Most people are quite familiar with this organization that has assisted thousands of people in the wake of natural disasters. View this page to see youth opportunities.

Building projects:

Habitat for Humanity – Habitat also has a page dedicated to youth volunteer opportunities to assist in efforts to build affordable housing.

Engage in an ongoing service project that may include repairs to village homes or planting mangroves. Copyright: © 2015 Rustic Pathways

Medical care:

Local Hospitals – Some local hospitals have welcomed volunteers in the past. Of course this may depend on community health issues, but it is worth investigating.

Fire stations/Local EMTS – Many all-volunteer fire stations welcome youth volunteers. You can visit your local station for more details.

Food Security:

Food Banks – Volunteering at a food bank is an easy first-time volunteering opportunity.

Disabilities & Sports:

Special Olympics – There has been a dramatic growth in teens and young adults volunteering with Special Olympics.

American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation – This organization tracks programs for people with disabilities in various sports. If a particular sport is of interest, this is a good place to look.


Local nonprofits for children, including sports and performing arts clubs, sometimes utilize youth volunteers for coaching and other duties.

Short-term projects:

Holiday food and toy drives – Look for local details.
Charity races like local 5k runs for good causes

Environment & Animals:

Local animal rescues – Some organizations like the SPCA require volunteers to be 18 to work with shelter animals. However, there are local animal rescues that will utilize young volunteers for some tasks, such as publicity.

4-H Club – The organization has a broad range of opportunities and is a particularly good source for projects related to agriculture and farm animals.

Parks: Some local parks will utilize volunteers for tasks like cleanup

General volunteering:

Key Club
Your local YMCA
Your school

At Home:

Some of the above organizations may have the opportunity to do projects at home. In addition, students can look for chances to donate items, ranging from their old toys and clothes to even their extra hair!


Rustic Pathways Foundation – After students have traveled, they are encouraged to become student impact ambassadors who help with Rustic’s international projects. Students can review the foundation page before they travel to see how their service work makes a difference.

Rustic students helped stabilize this floating school that was sinking in Cambodia.

After teens travel, it’s also worthwhile for them to maintain connections with other students so they can inspire each other as they continue forward with a service mindset. Many alumni move on after their journeys to do an impressive array of service.

Nuria Sainz Mañas, who traveled with Rustic Pathways back in 2013-2014, is a prime example of this. After completing programs in Costa Rica and Thailand, she went to the Universidad de Granada, graduating with a degree in Biochemistry in Universidad de Granada. Then she pursued a Master’s Degree on Humanitarian Operations in Emergencies at the Social Change School.

Along the way, she has become an extraordinarily dedicated volunteer. After starting her first volunteering abroad with Rustic Pathways, she went on to volunteer in various projects in Spain, Granada, Tanzania, Greece, and Peru, working in areas ranging from refugee camps to schools.

She also became strongly involved in Amnesty International and founded a nonprofit called Les Bolinguis, which utilizes music and theatre as a tool for social change.

She says it all began when Rustic got her out of her comfort zone, particularly the program Come With Nothing, Go Home Rich program.

“That made big changes on my personal beliefs and concept of traveling and the world,”  Sainz Mañas said.

From there, she says these changes triggered a new “Nuria” – making her a person who wanted to “dedicate her life to social change.”

To start the process of finding projects that have inspired students like Nuria, please visit our service program page. For more on how these projects have made a difference, visit our global impact page.  For virtual volunteering options, please visit this page.




About the Author

Mary Rogelstad

Content Writer

Mary is a Content Writer 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.