- Children with life-threatening illnesses can get their wishes at Orlando's most famous parks
- The Sierra Club and other groups offer opportunities for families to do good and sweat
- Trekking for Kids requires participants to raise money for the orphanages they visit
- Kids come to "understand the world is not just about them,' travel group leader says
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Service is inspiring people across the country to volunteer this holiday weekend.
But if you're itching to do more -- perhaps turning your next family vacation into a series of teachable moments about the importance of giving back -- there are plenty of opportunities to make that happen.
More than Disney
A trip to Orlando can easily involve service. Just 20 minutes from Walt Disney World is a theme park called Give Kids the World Village. Its 70-acre grounds host 7,000 children with life-threatening illnesses every year.
"We partner with more than 250 wish-granting organizations around the world to help fulfill a child's one wish to visit the beloved theme parks of Central Florida," says Colette Krahenbuhl, a spokeswoman. "If a child's wish is to swim with the dolphins, we are the destination. If a child's wish is to get a hug from Mickey Mouse, we help make that happen."
The resort relies heavily on volunteers. Since its founding in 1986, more than 50,000 volunteer "angels" have been put to work. Children as young as 12 can help out by scooping ice cream and serving meals, and children who love performing can even be part of the evening entertainment. The minimum commitment is one three-hour shift.
If your family wants a physically demanding volunteer vacation, the Sierra Club and local trails organizations offer unique, sweat-soaked opportunities.
For as little as $400, a family of four can spend four to five days with the Adirondack Mountain Club -- meals, lodging (usually tents), transportation and equipment included. You'll be doing much-needed trail maintenance, and reconstruction projects and your kids will be taught outdoor survival skills.
But hikers beware: "While we know children have a lot of fun on these trips and they are exposed to an incredible experience, it can certainly be challenging," warns Wes Lampman, the club's director of north country operations.
The club doesn't have age restrictions, but parents are urged to use their best judgment regarding their child's interest and physical ability. Trips are offered June through October.
Good works and decent lodging
The Sierra Club offers volunteer trips year-round at some of the country's top tourist destinations. At Arches National Park and Bryce Canyon in Utah, parents and children can assist in removing unwanted vegetation, while in Marin County, California, families can help protect endangered Coho salmon and Steelhead trout.
All meals and equipment are included, but the fee for joining is significantly higher. Helping out next October along the New Jersey Seashore, especially meaningful after Hurricane Sandy's devastation, will cost $595 per person. But if you're looking to spend a week away from home -- doing good and staying in hotel-style lodging -- this trip may still be a bargain.
Pauline Frommer, co-host of the nationally syndicated radio program "The Travel Show" and speaker at this year's New York Times Travel Show, says volunteer vacations offer children what they often don't get enough of in school.
"As volunteers, children can get down on the ground," says Frommer, who recommends Global Volunteers trips. "They can get dirty. Unlike any other kind of travel, kids will get to better understand different people and their communities and their problems."
Hiking to help others
Trekking for Kids merges one-of-a-kind hiking expeditions to places such as Machu Picchu in Peru and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania with the ability to help orphans in those communities.
"Children are increasingly living a multicultural global existence," says Cindy Steuart, executive director of the nonprofit travel group. "By being intimately involved in these service projects, they learn they can contribute to the greater good and make a difference. Our trips teach kids this lesson from the moment they sign up."
That's because Trekking for Kids doesn't let parents just write a check and have their kids show up. Each participant pays his or her own expenses and commits to raising $1,000.
Children have raised money by holding bake sales, asking family and friends for donations and conducting tag sales. "We think this increases a child's personal stake in the trip. Kids become more passionate," Steuart says. All money raised is poured into the orphanage the family will eventually visit, she says.
As you plan your family's volunteer vacation, Frommer suggests keeping the following in mind: How long has the organization been in business? Do volunteers come back? Ask to speak with past volunteers; they are likely to be candid about their experiences.
No matter which organization you partner with, Steuart says your child will likely learn an invaluable lesson. "They'll understand the world is not just about them. It's about how others struggle to live and what we can do to help. I think that's the kind of world Martin Luther King wanted."