Global Volunteers is quoted by CSNBC as “the leading edge of the surge in popularity of volunteer vacations.” The not for profit organization is a global network of natives, participants and staff who strive to address hunger, poverty, and educational needs around the world. As part of a group of 8 students and 2 staff members from Ohio Wesleyan University, I participated in a volunteer trip to Ciego de Avila, Cuba in May 2016. While not specifically stated as a program for older adults, my collegiate team members were the only ones under age 50, and the organization was so excited about having younger folks that they asked quite a few times if they can use us in their advertising. Here are my thoughts on the non-religious non-profit organization.
The lowest advertised price for a one week trip to Ciego de Avila is $2,595. Global Volunteers (GV) has programs all over the world,and two other randomly chosen one week trips cost $2,395 (Siedlce, Poland) and $2,495 (Hanoi, Vietnam). The most expensive trip I found is a two week volunteer trip in Italy at a steep $3,195.
Included in this price is double occupancy housing, all meals, a Global Volunteers t-shirt, pre-trip readings and minimal training, ground transportation, and staff on location to lead and translate. Donations to the organization provide many of the materials needed for your project, although any required materials that are not donated are purchased with your program fee. Airfare and visas are not included in the GV fee. There is a $200 student discount on all international trips and $50 on domestic trips. These discounts also apply to “alumni” global volunteers, companions of alumni, and referrals.
As a college student used to traveling and volunteering on a budget, the Global Volunteer’s program fee was much more than I would expect for a program of its type. There were many aspects (very nice accommodations, restaurant dinners) that could be modified to cut costs, however for a company catering to middle aged and older people with money, the extra costs may be worth the “luxuries.”
Our team leader on the ground in Ciego de Avila was incredible. As a very organized person, I was impressed with the clear-headedness and competence that Nia Salas showed in dealing with questions and confusions. I greatly appreciated her dedication and sensitivity to the requirements of her job. Unfortunately due to some strong disagreements with GV, she has left the organization and is working independently.
The other employees and volunteers that I interacted with in Ciego were equally competent. Each Cuban partner was understanding and helpful. They went above and beyond to make friends with us and I have stayed in contact with many of them.
Office employees in the United States were slightly less amazing. Organization was more difficult than it should have been and although they were helpful in dealing with my problematic team, often they were late in responding to emails or unhelpful in answering questions. My entire team was clueless as to what exactly we were doing until the moment we stepped off the plane and got to talk to the staff on the ground. We also had a misunderstanding about what the program fee covered which resulted in a major problems for my team (See this post!).
Overall experience with the company:
Overall, I had an incredibly rewarding trip to Ciego de Avila, Cuba, which I attribute mostly to our Cuban leaders and my team, not to the competence of the Global Volunteers organization itself. The trip felt more like a glorified vacation and less like a “give of yourself” trip.
Positives of my Global Volunteers experience:
- Quality interactions with incredible Cuban people of all ages
- The opportunity to visit a country that was closed to a majority of American tourists. Luckily, relations between the two governments are opening and there will be more opportunities to travel in the future.
- The process of getting the 50 person GV group onto the charter plane from Miami to Santa Clara was terrible. Their volunteer travel coordinators (alumni Global Volunteers participants) did not speak Spanish (a hindrance in Miami) and seemed to be insecure in an airport setting — the worst thing to be when trying to lead a large group of older adults through a flight delay.
- Our collegiate team was uninformed about the group that we would be joining in Cuba. Instead of being a trip with simply the 10 of us, we joined ~50 older adults also participating.
- Our team found some of the work to be limited and unfulfilling. That said, we are college students with a lot of energy and a wish to be as productive as possible. Our older counterparts often found the work to fulfill their expectations.
Personally, I would not travel again with Global Volunteers because I believe the cost is too high and I believe that I could give back to a community in a more effective way than the touristy GV trip provided. For an older adult looking for a comfortable vacation that allows for community interactions, a GV trip to Cuba would be perfect. For a young adult looking for a cheap service trip, Global Volunteers is not the way to go.