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Building schools and wells – not your typical family vacation

We Day

Building schools and wells – not your typical family vacation

Experiential and interactive travel is growing as tourists look for authentic connections

Elaine Chin, left, We’s Craig Kielburger and Robert Wong were invited to participate in a school building project during their trip to Kenya to fully immerse themselves in the local culture and work alongside locals.

On a recent trip to Kenya with his mother, 18-year-old Robert Wong learned about sustainable farming, fetched water for residents of the village he was visiting, and pitched in to build a school for the local children.

Not exactly the kind of trip one might expect a teenager to have on his bucket list, but for Mr. Wong, the two-week vacation – organized by Me to We – checked off all the right boxes.

"One of the biggest deciding factors was that I had never been to Africa before and that intrigued me," says Mr. Wong, an engineering student at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.

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"My decision was based on wanting to travel and immerse myself in another culture, while at the same time try to understand what I could do now and in the future to make a bigger impact in the communities that I was going to visit."

Mr. Wong and his mother, physician Elaine Chin, are among the growing group of travellers who prefer "experiential" vacations – where visitors engage closely with locals and even lend a hand in community projects – over conventional tourism. This desire for immersive experiences, which is especially notable among Generation Z travellers such as Mr. Wong, is driving growth among travel operators that offer more interactive experiences for small groups.

"People are looking to make authentic connections with local communities and cultures," says Russ McLeod, chief operations director at Me to We. "Many are also looking for ways to make a meaningful impact during their travels and seek quality volunteering opportunities."

Jennifer Deacon, co-owner of Quench Trip Design Ltd., a Toronto company that creates bespoke trips for individuals and small groups, agrees.

"People want unique experiences where they can interact with local residents and maybe even build something that can help the communities they're visiting," she says.

"For example, we had a family who visited Peru this year and they said the highlight of their trip was a visit to a school, where they were able to bring in school supplies and clothing, and teach the children about Canada."

At Me to We, this growing demand for experiential vacations has translated to more travellers and trips each year. Mr. McLeod says the organization brings about 5,000 people each year on trips to Kenya, India, Ecuador, Tanzania, China and Nicaragua. This year Me to We expanded its roster of destinations to include Ethiopia.

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Elaine Chin, left, Kisaruni student and Robert Wong visit the Oleleshwa Farm, located near the site of Kisaruni Girls Secondary School – Oleleshwa Campus, in Kenya.

Ultimately, most travellers want adventure, says Mr. McLeod, and Me to We trips definitely deliver.

Mr. Wong and his mother, certainly had no shortage of adventures during their Kenya trip. Dr. Chin, founder and medical director of the Executive Health Centre in Toronto, recalls some of the most memorable moments of her Kenya trip with her son: a safari through the Maasai Mara reserve where lions were just inches away from the open Jeep that transported them; a tour of the Me to We-built Baraka Health Clinic, where she talked to the medical team about how they can more easily monitor hundreds of patients by accessing electronic medical records from a medical device; and a visit to the Kisaruni Girls Secondary School.

"On a personal note, the Kisaruni girls were surprised to see a Chinese lady become a doctor," Dr. Chin says. "I told them that they can be whatever they want to be as they have no barriers to learning because their school is one of the best schools in the world. I could see so much pride in their eyes."

For her son, the community water walk was a fascinating experience. Over the years, Me to We has been building water wells – with pumps powered by solar panels – within Kenyan communities to make it easier for the young girls tasked with fetching water.

"Kenya can become a very dry place which means that people have to travel to almost unheard of distances to get water," he says. "This is one of the reasons why a lot of children, mostly girls, can't go to school."

Mr. Wong notes that by building some water wells right on school campus, Me to We has made it more convenient for children and their families to bring home water.

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He says the most satisfying part of his trip to Kenya was building a school. In addition to helping him learn even more about local culture, this exercise allowed him to experience the main thrust of Me to We's work in Kenya.

"Each day we would go to a work site to help build a school in Kenya and it was exciting to see the progress in just a few days," he says. "This is where I got to see the majority of what We charity has been working toward: education."

Months after their Me to We trip, mother and son say they remain inspired – and profoundly changed – by everything they experienced in Kenya.

"When you go on this trip it truly is a transformational trip for you as an individual and as a family," Dr. Chin says. "You see the real deal – real nature and authentic culture – and you interact with local residents. That is so invaluable."

Making the most of the experience

Looking to embark on an experiential trip? Consider these words of advice from those who've been there, done that.

Let your heart lead you

Choose your trip based on what you're passionate about, says Mr. McLeod at Me to We. For instance, if you're most concerned about empowering women, then consider a Me to We trip to India. By comparison, the Kenya trip focuses on education as a means to end the cycle of poverty, while Ecuador highlights the environment and sustainability.

Be bold

Experiential trips such as those offered by Me to We involve settings and activities that are unfamiliar and intimidating to some people. Just go with it, says Mr. Wong, who has gone on two Me to We trips. "Take it all in," he says. "I urge you to act out of your comfort zone as it will teach you a lot about yourself."

Take your time

Mercedeh Sanati, co-owner of Toronto-based bespoke trip planner Quench Trip Design Ltd., says experiential travel is best enjoyed at a slow pace. Researching ahead of time is a good idea, but leave plenty of room for discovery and surprises, she adds. "Don't try to cram everything into your two or three weeks of vacation time and don't over research your destinations," she says. "It's supposed to be an adventure, so don't try to plan every activity in advance."

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