Volunteer Honeymoons Add Memories and Meaning

Melinda and Craig McCollough were approaching their wedding with nearly-newlywed bliss when they heard the news. Hurricane Katrina had blown through New Orleans, leaving the communities there in dire need of help. The groom had attended school and played music in New Orleans, and he still felt a deep connection to the community. Since the couple had three weeks’ vacation already planned, they decided to combine the luxury portion with a volunteering effort at the beginning of their honeymoon. “We could do everything we wanted,” Melinda recalls. “Relax, explore, and also give back to the community.”

Relaxing on a beach and staring meaningfully into your partner’s eyes is nice enough, but what if you want to do something even more meaningful together? Volunteering honeymoons are a growing trend among newlyweds like the McColloughs who want to give the rest of the world a gift equal to the one they’ve just given themselves. Share your joy and love with a community halfway around the world or one in your own backyard–just find a cause you’re passionate about and sign up as a volunteering team!

If you suspect a volunteering honeymoon may be a good fit for you, start researching your options early. Give special thought to timing–if you’re planning a wedding around the winter holidays, you may want to postpone your honeymoon (too many volunteers flood the system around Christmas and New Year’s, whereas most organizations actively seek volunteers during the rest of the year).

If you know friends who have volunteered in the past, ask them about their experiences. The Internet is also a good source of firsthand volunteering stories. Hearing about other people’s experiences can help you plan a volunteering honeymoon that will match your expectations.

The first question to ask is: what aspect of volunteering is the most important to you? Do you want to learn new skills? Do you want to improve quality of life after a natural disaster? Do you want to help children, animals, the environment, the arts, or another cause? In every volunteering effort, there are a wide range of jobs available from ladling soup to building bathrooms to teaching kids to read.

Are you more comfortable in social roles or would you rather organize databases and apply for grants in front of a computer? Channel your efforts into the job, however small, that fits your areas of skill and enthusiasm. You’ll be of the most help when you enjoy what you do.

The next question is: what type of volunteering experience do you want to have? Large organizations like the Peace Corps will have connections to volunteering opportunities in more locations and will have a wider range of jobs available than small, grassroots organizations, but you may have more personal flexibility by joining a local group.

Just as with large and small companies, it’s important to find a good fit for your working style. “I did a lot of Google searching before I finally connected with an organization doing good work for the community with very little overhead,” Melinda recalls. “Almost 95 cents on the dollar went to the actual project. That was important to me.”

Don’t underestimate the power of volunteering in your own community. Look for local organizations that restore parks and natural areas, help the homeless and victims of domestic abuse, care for stray animals, or provide programs for underprivileged kids–just to name a few causes. If you only have a limited amount of time for your honeymoon (say, one week), you can probably get more accomplished if you stay closer to home. If the work you want to do requires training sessions, try to attend these in your spare time before the honeymoon.

Think about whether you want to work side by side with your new spouse, or whether your talents can be put to better use separately. Craig and Melinda had different skill sets, so they ended up volunteering on two separate projects. She was spackling walls in newly-renovated houses while he was doing jobs that required more physical strength, like prying rotten boards off of buildings.

“We could have probably pushed for a job together,” Melinda says, “but it wouldn’t have been as efficient. We were there to help as much as we could. We had two full weeks together ahead of us, and we were spending the nights together, after all!” 

Your honeymoon doesn’t have to be all sweat and toil. Try splitting your time, or taking two smaller honeymoons separated by a few months. Melinda and Craig went from working in the Ninth Ward to a luxurious vacation in Costa Rica that included a five-star resort as well as an eco-lodge. “We had great stories from every part,” Melinda reflects, “But the volunteering part was soul-satisfying.”

Volunteering isn’t for everyone. The work you’re assigned may not be the most glamorous, and you may prefer to do your good deeds through charitable donations that don’t destroy your wedding manicure. However, the experience of volunteering may surprise you. Melinda sums up her experience: “The honeymoon is usually all about yourselves. It’s so nice to turn it around and think about others.”