I can't forget those big eyes looking up at me. Angelica is two years old and she has been living at one of the Dominican Republic's SOS Children's Villages since she was six months old. A social worker first found her alone in a hovel, covered in flies. Her brothers were out scavenging for food on the streets -- they were only two and four at the time.
Today, Angelica thrives; she walks down the street holding her brothers' hands. When she turns four she will attend the local school, which is part of the village. Her future is bright and the odds are she will leave her tough start far behind her.
Angelica is just one of the current 78,000 children who has been given a home by SOS Children's Villages. You may never have heard of them, but SOS Children's Villages cares for more abandoned and orphaned children around the world than any other aid agency.
The vision of SOS Children's Villages is "a loving home for every child" and they provide stability and a family for abandoned and orphaned children in 133 countries. The children are housed in groups of approximately ten with an "SOS mother." Their "SOS mother" cares for the children as if they were her own, and usually continues a relationship with them long after they leave the village. Some of these children have suffered unspeakable horrors; their families in one way or another had abandoned all of them. There are often schools, medical clinics and social workers in the community as well.
I visited and stayed at two SOS Children's Villages, thanks to Air Transat who flew me to the Dominican Republic so I could see first-hand the good work of SOS Children's Villages. Transat has been a generous partner to SOS Children's Villages since 2009 when they chose to focus on children's organizations that work in their destination countries. They have donated almost a million dollars and helped thousands of kids get better lives. Everyone from the executive level to the grounds crew and passengers has donated to SOS Children's Villages. Some of that money goes to the running of the villages; and some of the money goes to projects like a needed water filtration plant in the Children's Village in Haiti.
During my week in the Dominican, I learned a lot about the organization, and also about unconditional love and how the feelings of permanence and security can help a child heal from trauma. It changed how I think about children in need, and also about how I look at travel.
The Children's Villages were far from the all-inclusive resorts that make the Dominican Republic a desirable destination. Our guides took us to downtown Santiago and Santo Domingo to show us their country, and it was beautiful. We ate local food, and were schooled in the correct avocado to eat with dinner and the wonders of the plantain.
The trip got me thinking about how I could be a better, more responsible traveler. How could I teach my children to enjoy travel, but also do it in an eco and culturally responsible way? I was not surprised to find that I am not alone in trying to find that balance. A study by Transat Holidays found that 87 per cent of Canadian package travelers prefer a vacation carrier that takes part in socially responsible tourism like environmental protection efforts and giving back to the communities in which it serves.
Eco-Friendly & Sustainable Travel Tips
1. Take photos, and leave the natural environment as is -- leave your sand, shells and coral souvenirs on the beach.
2. Support the local economy by purchasing unique gifts and souvenirs made by local artisans.
3. Go out to tourist-friendly restaurants outside of your hotel, to support local business.
4. Look for a company that gives back to the destinations in which it travels to by supporting social or humanitarian causes.
5. If you have a specific set of skills, research trips where you can use your skills to help a community in-need.
Read more about Emma's experience at SOS Children's Village at SOSmothers.ca.
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