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How To Make A Positive Impact Through Hostelling In The USA

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Volunteering while travelling | Hostelling in the USA
By Becky Garrison, Epicure & Culture Contributor

Have you ever wanted to expand your adventures in a new city beyond sightseeing to really connect with the local community? One possibility to enhance your travels is volunteering while traveling (as long as you volunteer abroad ethically, of course).

One way to infuse volunteering into your stay is by booking accommodations with one of Hostelling International USA’s (HI USA)’s many hostels located throughout the United States.

To learn more, Epicure & Culture caught up with Emily Gallagher, Community Engagement and Education Manager of HI USA about the opportunities they have available for travelers looking for opportunities to make a difference.

Keep in mind, there are many great places to travel alone in the US, so you’ll have plenty of options.

volunteering while traveling HI New York City Hostel
HI New York City Hostel exterior

1. What programs do you have available for backpackers looking to add some social good to their itinerary?

We believe all travelers need to be mindful of the impact they have socially, economically and environmentally on the host communities they visit. Even cosmopolitan cities feel the impact of tourism, and this is why social good is important to us.

There are volunteer opportunities at all hostels. The Great Hostel Give Back application is here, [where volunteer groups can apply for free accommodation each year; applications due mid February].

Also, we have some national level programs like Sleep for Peace, where our organization creates peace-building programs around the country during the week of the UN’s International Day Of Peace.

In January and February, we have a program that offers free overnights to groups that do two hours of community service that benefits our neighborhood or city. We also have opportunities through planned activities and tours for backpackers to connect directly with local volunteers and international travelers alike.

Finally, we offer a number of scholarships and prep classes like Study Abroad 101 and Travel Bootcamp. These teach young people in those cities where Hostelling International is located how to plan an educational trip on a budget.

We believe travel is a vital and powerful educational tool, and we want to make it more available to everyone.

2. What is it about hostelling that makes it a great fit for social impact experiences?

Hostelling is communal. It allows travelers to make both formal and informal connections with people. It’s more economical, which allows travelers of a broader economic identity to travel. By using shared facilities, the environmental impact of staying at a hostel is second to none.

volunteering while traveling, cooking in a hostel
Teacher Indigo Goodson leads a SA 101 class for local college students interested in studying abroad. They’re cooking a communal meal during their hostel overnight.

3. How do you define responsible tourism?

Responsible tourism is reflective of the incredible impact that travel has on a community economically, environmentally and culturally.

Also, responsible tourism works to mitigate the impacts of travel mindfully by engaging in local issues, supporting small businesses, and respecting and supporting authentic community.

4. In your opinion, what needs to change in the travel industry? How can travelers help move it in the direction to make this happen?

Travel needs to be more mindful about supporting small business and not funneling money out of the areas they serve. I recently heard that only $5 out of every $100 a traveler spends generally goes to community members themselves.

That is unacceptable in my opinion. We need to invest in local culture and work with local stakeholders to find out what is important to them, and work alongside them. Communities are not products to experience; they are living and breathing systems that support life. We need to recognize that and see our neighbors as our collaborators and colleagues.

HI USA is also working to expand the travel network, giving scholarships and prep classes to local residents who have never traveled, or have economic barriers to travel. Applications for our Explore the World Travel Scholarship program will open in January.

volunteering while traveling, HI USA community class
One of HI USA’s community classes that focuses on cultural foods called “International Ingredients”

5. Can you share one story of progress thanks to HI USA’s initiatives?

A successful initiative we are experimenting with at HI NYC is what we call our Ambassador Program. For returning scholarship winners, we are working to continue their development by becoming a representative of our program.  We give them opportunities to speak to audiences of college students, journalists and travel industry professionals to talk about how the experience shaped them, and why travel is an important educational tool. This is great professional development and offers our promising young people an opportunity to shine.

Our current ambassador has spoken at an international conference, promotes our scholarship on her campus, and presents and volunteers at Study Abroad 101. It’s essential that students have the opportunity to teach each other and inspire each other.

6. What have been the biggest challenges in putting these programs into place?

Many people traveling to major cities already have an itinerary in mind, and may not consider experiencing New York or other gateways the same way they would think about going to, say, a rural village with a distinctly different culture from their own.

New York in particular is overwhelming. There are over 137 unique neighborhoods here, and a multitude of languages spoken. Travelers come to New York feeling that they already know it because of media coverage; but the city is really so much more complex, rich and diverse.

For someone with just three days to see this city, convincing them to explore a different area than they planned can be difficult.

7. Is there a program in particular that is most popular with your guests?

Jerry’s Grand Tour is a 12-hour romp through multiple boroughs with many meals shared. It’s led  by a retired NYC school teacher.

volunteering while traveling in a soup kitchen
Two backpackers from London (in aprons) with a community member who runs a soup kitchen, where they went to volunteer

8. What plans do you have for the future regarding these programs?

We are building our identity as a community force, working to establish more meaningful connections with our neighbors so that we have more opportunities to serve locally and connect neighbors with travelers.

9. Do you have any other suggestions regarding how backpackers can be more mindful when traveling?

Make sure to support small local businesses and holes in the wall. They will always surprise you!

Interact with locals by attending local events.

Buy someone a coffee or beer and ask for their advice or company. Get to know them and share your perspective. Challenge yourself to be bold and ask questions.

Be mindful that where you visit is someone’s home, and that most people around you are going to work, school or running errands.

Be willing to check out the weird little places instead of the famous ones.

Be nice to service workers and tip well.

Consider volunteering in your host city, even if it’s a major tourism city.

Participate in hostel-based activities!

volunteering while traveling Explore The World Scholarship
HI USA Explore the World Scholarship winners & classmates experiencing study abroad in Spain

10. What are some ways people can get involved with HI USA’s mission even when not staying at an HI Hostel?

We have great volunteer programs wherever we have a hostel, where you can host the travelers in your own community.  Each hour of volunteering earns you credits towards a free stay in another HI hostel, so it’s endlessly rewarding.

Hostelling in the USA

Becky Garrison

Since moving to the Pacific Northwest in 2014, Becky Garrison has been covering this region's craft culture including food, beer, wine, spirits, cider, coffee, and cannabis/CBD, as well as the regional festival scene, and the rise of secular spiritual communities. Along with publishing eight books, she has contributed to publications like The Daily Beast, The Dirty Spoon, Fodor's Travel, and The Grapevine Magazine.

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