When Fathom came out with their impact travel concept in the Dominican Republic (DR), I was excited about experiencing it with my family. Fathom takes you right to where help is needed – via cruise ship — and makes it easy to sign up for volunteer activities that have a direct socio-economic impact on the people you meet personally while volunteering as well as their communities.

“Voluntourism” is becoming increasingly popular and for good reason. Making a difference in a place you are visiting and authentically engaging with the community is empowering and promotes cross-cultural understanding. And, when done right, it’s an amazing and productive experience for all involved. The problem is that some reports argue that voluntourism can be ineffective, and even counterproductive. It may make the volunteers feel good, but it doesn’t always help the community as much as they would hope and sometimes can be inadvertently harmful.  Fathom works with Dominican community development organizations to ensure that the socio-economic impact activities they sponsor actually make a difference. They closely monitor activities and track the contributions of volunteers to ensure that quality is maintained and that there is a meaningful, measurable productivity or social benefit. So, when you complete an impact activity, you will know exactly how many plants were planted or pounds of cocoa were cleaned, or whatever the case may be. The women’s cooperatives that they work with allow women to work locally rather than travel long distances to find work and they can care for their families and children while they work. The children can help in the cooperatives when they aren’t in school. This is critical to keeping the communities together.

The DR cruise on the Adonia embarks out of Miami. The ship is comfortable and there are fun activities and workshops to keep us all entertained — and learning — on the voyage to and from the DR. Plus, the sunsets were amazing! The port is new with a great pool, watercraft rentals (kayaks, paddle boards, etc.), some shopping and restaurants.

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Though the time on the ship was enjoyable, the experiences while in the DR are what truly make an impact and create life-long memories. In addition to impact activities, there are plenty of opportunities for exploration, fun and adventure. Our family of 4 did a variety of activities including exploring the city of Puerta Plata, zip lining through the countryside, power snorkeling, and relaxing in an over-the-water bungalow.

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The best part of the trip however was the experiences we had volunteering in a chocolate cooperative, a paper recycling cooperative, a reforestation project and practicing English/Spanish with students at a school. There were many other activities we weren’t able to get to, and it would definitely be worth going back to experience more.

Here’s a few highlights from our trip:

Cacao Nursury & Chocal Women’s Chocolate Cooperative:

There were 2 locations that we worked at. The first was the cocoa plant nursery where we mixed soil, filled bags with soil, and then planted a bean in each bag. Then we went to the small chocolate factory where we volunteered sorting good roasted cocoa beans from bad, separating nibs, molding melted chocolate, and packaging chocolate bars.

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I really loved working in the nursery. It felt great to dig in and build up a sweat under the hot sun. It was amazing how much planting we were able to get done in just a couple of hours. It is definitely the type of activity where extra hands make an immediate impact on the productivity of the co-op.

RePapel Recycled Paper & Crafts Cooperative:

The women at RePapel are inspiring and so warm and friendly. They laugh often and sing while they work. They made up a song that goes through the whole recycling process and they sing it all day long. They also sing and dance to La Bamba. They had us help them with the entire paper recycling process: tearing up paper and sorting it into buckets, washing the paper, blending it into small bits, using a screen to form the paper pulp into a sheet and lay it out to dry in the sun, and then rubbing the paper smooth after it dried. We also helped make candles, jewelry and other crafts that the women sell.

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RePapel is located in a small, tightly built, impoverished town with very narrow, winding streets. Right next to RePapel is a house with a window that opens to the RePapel courtyard. When we took a snack break, there was a little boy jumping up and down on the couch in his house yelling “Oye, oye!” So I went over to say hello and see what he was so excited about. He wanted a manzana (Spanish for apple), which was one of the snacks we were having. After checking that it was okay, my older daughter went to the door with an apple for him and his little sister. They were very cute playing peek-a-boo through the window with us until it was time to say goodbye.

Zip Lining:

Zip lining is always a fun family activity, but it’s also a great way to see the beautiful country side. We went on a course that had 8 zip lines of varying heights and lengths. There were modest hikes between lines and some platforms to mount, but it wasn’t overly strenuous. The views from the platforms were really beautiful. We were able to see far in every direction. This particular property also had some exotic animals onsite as well as a restaurant.

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Overall, it was an amazing trip – one that our family will always remember. We look forward to getting back to the beauty of the DR and its people.