Every time we finish a Hope Floats volunteer excursion in one of many Caribbean ports, I am reminded of Walt Disney's words: "It's kinda fun to do the impossible."
My husband and I have enjoyed being guest lecturers on cruise ships for years, and after seeing the extensive poverty hidden behind the touristy attractions at our ports of call, we had an epiphany. We wondered if there were a way to connect cruise line passengers with existing charities on these islands for short service projects while in port.
We figured this could be a new and novel experience for veteran cruisers, while also providing much relief to short-staffed local charities. After finding that no such organization existed, we founded the nonprofit charity Hope Floats seven years ago.
Interacting with locals makes a lasting impression
Throughout the past few years, we have discovered that there are many others who share this sentiment. A paradigm shift has began in the tourism industry, as vacationers have began to seek out volunteer opportunities instead of adventure excursions. 47% of respondents to a 2009 Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Poll expressed interest in volunteer vacations, while 95% of vacationers who had volunteered said they would do it again. More and more people are pursuing the deep-seated joy of helping locals over the more temporary excitement of a typical vacation spent chasing touristy sights.
Having been an avid cruise ship passenger for years, I resonate deeply with this ideal. I have experienced it all: being catapulted into the air during a Dolphin Encounter excursion, driving ATV's through Hawaiian lava flows — you've likely been there, done that. But all the joy experienced during these excursions was fleeting and never seemed to linger for more than a day or two.
Contrast this with our most recent cruise experience at the Salvation Army in Antigua, where adorable preschoolers (pictured at top) and their grateful teachers clamored around my fellow cruise ship volunteers as we distributed their first-ever dry-erase boards and books. Upon receiving these gifts, their joy was undeniable as they broke out in songs and dance to display their gratitude. The sheer joy we all felt from this radical cruise experience endured throughout the rest of our trip, and still to this day sends shivers down my spine when I think about it.
Efforts range from recycling to nursing homes
At Hope Floats, we now work with charities on seven Caribbean islands and hope to soon add five additional locations. All charities must meet our stringent requirements before we allow passengers to volunteer. Many cruisers will be familiar with some of the nonprofits we serve, such as the Red Cross and Salvation Army. However, we also serve charities unique to each port of call, such as recycling centers, humane societies, nursing homes and environmental agencies.
In short, there's a volunteer opportunity for whatever gets you jazzed, with different kinds of gigs available for individuals, couples, families, businesses and organizations.
How a volunteer assignment works
All arrangements are made online weeks before embarking, with each passenger choosing any number of ports they want to serve at. Volunteers are also given optional wish-lists from every charity, so every nook of their suitcase can be filled with much needed items. These remarkable volunteers then depart on their cruise.
Upon reaching their ports, they disembark and head to their four-hour stints with detailed directions in hand. All charities are within a 15-minute walk or cab ride from the pier, and a charity supervisor meets them and provides bottled water. After completing their volunteer time, they still have hours left to be tourists, often visiting beaches and sites shared by the same appreciative locals they came to assist.
We have received a number of positive testimonies from these volunteer experiences. Here are a few:
- A 9 year- old Iowa girl and her parents raved about the local mango salad and pastries, all bought at a local hut on Antigua and bestowed on them after their volunteer time at a local recycling center where they helped sort materials.
- Two women from Canada motivated their fellow co-workers to donate enough dog and cat products to fill two large suitcases before they left for their cruise. The items were then donated at the St. Thomas Humane Society in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Humbly they shared: “distributing this bounty, and caring for these precious abandoned animals was the highlight of our cruise.”
- A couple slated to volunteer at a center for developmentally disabled people on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands ended up serving tea at a red carpet ceremony to a visiting member of the British royalty. They were ”thrilled at the experience” and remarked how they “will tell this story for years to come.”
- A 63-year-old widow volunteered to give hand massages to the elderly at a senior center in Tortola (using her own bottles of lotion provided in her stateroom). She shared: ”To soothe their gnarled hard-working joints was soothing to my soul.”
How to sign up & help out
Interested? Come on board and share in these satisfying experiences while you vacation in the most popular cruise region in the world. We understand that this is your hard-earned vacation, yet that's the beauty of it all. You'll still be savoring the 5-star luxury on ships before and after any volunteer opportunity while still knowing that you helped to make a difference in these impoverished regions.