Now my daughter wants to do it every time we travel. 

By Jennifer Wolff
Henrik Sorensen/Getty Images

Last Year my friend Marcy, a flight attendant who had been donating clothes and time to charities in Ecuador for several years, invited our family to go along on an upcoming trip to Quito. But there was a caveat: Anyone who joined her had to volunteer with a group of disadvantaged children in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.

“I want the kids to have stuffed animals,” announced my 8-year-old daughter, Zoë. “Every kid needs one for when they’re scared and can’t sleep.”

And that’s how Zoë ended up in front of several dozen wide-eyed Ecuadorean schoolchildren at Comedor San Bonifacio, a free or reduced lunch program in Quito. Without speaking a word of Spanish, she taught them how to make stuffed puppets from socks, pillow filling, rubber bands, and googly eyes, which we had purchased online and packed in our suitcases.

Zoë held a sock above her head, spun around so everyone could see, stuffed it, made arms and legs by tying off the corners with rubber bands, and formed a head and tail by tying off the top and bottom of the sock. “See,” she said to the children. “A puppy. Ruff, ruff.”

They laughed. But still no one knew what to do. Zoë sat with each child and showed, step by step, how to construct their new toy. One boy used the entire sock to make a snake. A girl fashioned a bunny. Soon the whole room got the hang of it and started sticking googly eyes and glitter gems not just on their sock puppets but all over their smiling faces.

Later, we visited the home of one of the children. Zoë has a natural instinct for giving back. She sells lemonade every summer to raise money for a local animal shelter and contributes her own money to various causes at our temple. But she had never come face-to-face with true poverty.

At first, this family’s home didn’t seem that bad—they had a TV and a toilet, albeit without a seat. But then we walked into the kitchen, with damp dirt floors and a ceiling that dripped dirty water. Torn clothes hung from rusted water pipes. Light from a single exposed bulb lit the entire house, which was just two small rooms.

Zoë didn’t say much after that. I wondered if she had really absorbed what she’d seen, if she’d appreciated the difference between her life and those of these impoverished children. She never spoke of how little they had, how hungry they’d been when she helped ladle their soup and pour their drinks at lunch.

But then a few weeks ago, I cleaned out Zoë’s closets and dresser—so many clothes that no longer fit, so many toys she had outgrown. “What should we do with all this stuff?” I asked her.

“Give it to Ecuador, Mommy,” she told me. “Those kids really need it.”

We both are holding on to the idea that it’s important to give back when we travel, even if it’s just for a day or a few hours. So when we go on our next trip, we will find someone like Marcy to guide us toward the need.

To Give Back When You Travel

  1. Bring donations in your suitcase. Packforapurpose.org compiles lists of what items are most needed in the country you’re visiting.
  2. Set aside one day of a larger trip for volunteering instead of hitting a tourist attraction. Giveadayglobal.org pairs families with local charities and communities in need in many countries. 
  3. Support local artists with your souvenir shopping. Ask your hotel’s concierge for ideas on where your dollars will help the most.