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When our 15-year-old son, Nate, departed for his first international trip without his parents, his father and I knew he had many lessons in store for him: with the aid of his team leaders from Adventures Cross Country, he’d learn about the flora and fauna of rural Costa Rica, local politics and the educational system as he taught English to school children and worked on construction projects in small villages, and environmental stewardship in the tropical jungle. We hadn’t anticipated that his educational experience would begin before he even set foot on international soil: his maturity, travel-savvy, and personal management skills were put to the test when his plane to San Jose, Costa Rica was delayed, then cancelled. Turns out, the learning curve is pretty steep when you’re a teen and suddenly find yourself stranded in a major airport overnight.

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While stressful at the time, this travel hiccup ended up providing Nate with one of the best lessons of his trip: the need to take charge, while remaining calm and flexible. By the time Nate arrived through customs and met with his Costa Rican team for the next two weeks, he was already in possession of a newfound confidence that’s carried over after his return. Yes, he learned about poisonous jungle critters and cultural differences, how to build a lean-to and teamwork (and even how to surf), but most importantly, he learned to trust himself, adapt, and be a leader.

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If you’re considering a teen service trip for your child, there’s a lot to consider, from safety to price to credits earned. Here’s what we looked for (and ultimately found in Adventures Cross Country):

  1. Great communication

There’s a degree of risk when parents prepare to send their child to another country with people they haven’t met. In fact, when put like this, it sounds downright scary. When we started the process with Adventures Cross Country, I was immediately put at ease by the level of professional organization. Each student’s family is assigned an online portal, where all documents, forms, and destination information is stored. (Read more about how to prepare your child for his or her teen service trip.) Phone calls from the home office is regular, and we never felt like Nate was just a number. When Nate’s travel day went array, I was able to communicate immediately with staff members who were swift to action. Put simply, our hands were held the whole time…which is fortunate, as we’d never sent our child on a solo trip before.

rafing lodge

  1. Meaningful service

When kids sign up to make a difference, they want to do just that. Yes, students on Adventures Cross Country trips become eligible for community service hours (useful back at home), but the real learning begins when kids become invested in what they’re doing. We thought Nate’s favorite activities in Costa Rica would be surfing and white water rafting; in fact, he raved about the three days he spent in a rural school room, playing games with kids to help them learn English. This service was made possible by the in-country hosts Adventures Cross Country works with year after year. Find an organization with strong, long-term ties to the countries it visits, because it will be invested not only in the paying students, but in the destination as well.

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  1. Experienced team leaders

When kids travel without their parents to international countries where they won’t know anyone, it’s critical that the team leaders who essentially care for them and guide them are up for the task. Nate loved his leaders, Sally and Bolo, and from his tales of fun games, jokes, and activities, I know they skillfully bonded 13 kids in short order. Group dynamics are never easy to control (some students come with friends, some solo), but a quality leader can even the playing field. Look for programs with leaders who keep kids busy (a full itinerary is a good sign) and encourage enthusiasm (and discourage negative talk).

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To find all the above without asking to shadow a trip yourself, do the next best thing: talk to program alumni. (Read about Nate’s day-to-day itinerary in his own words.) Quality teen service programs will connect families with teens and parents who have been through the process. Also ask for a detailed trip itinerary and check a program’s reputation on multiple review sites like TripAdvisor before selecting one.  Ask for program policies, and make sure you’re comfortable with the level of supervision set. Know phone, electronic device, and drug/alcohol policies before you invest, so you can be sure the program is aligned with your family’s values or rules. Lastly, do your research to ensure the destination is currently safe to visit. After you’ve done your due diligence, relax, and enjoy watching your teen blossom while using his or her newfound travel skills!

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About the Author

Amy Whitley is a family travel writer, editor, and magazine columnist living in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and three children. Amy is the founder of PitStopsForKids.com, where she writes travel advice and destination reviews for families with kids ages 0-18.

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