Updated for 2023-2024
Puerto Rico has long been a destination-of-choice for vacationers, especially Americans who want the best the Caribbean has to offer without the hassle of a passport. The island consistently attracts 4-5+ million tourists per year, according to the World Tourism Organization.
Sadly, natural disasters continue to cause major devastation to the island. When Hurricane Maria tore through the island in September 2017, much of the area was completely decimated. Hotels flooded, large sections of forest were uprooted, and many homes were reduced to rubble. Hospitals went dark, and nearly 3,000 people lost their lives.
Once the terrifying 155 mph winds passed, Puerto Rico set about the business of rebuilding. Today, major cities like San Juan have nearly recovered, and few scars remain from Maria’s devastation. However, outside of these areas, there is still work to be done.
Unfortunately, numerous severe earthquakes and aftershocks hit Puerto Rico in early 2020, bringing more damage and heartbreak. Once again, the island had to rebuild. Shortly thereafter, COVID-19 began spreading around the world and Puerto Rico was particularly at risk given its higher proportion of elderly resident, higher rates of poverty, reduced healthcare funding, and devastation following two major natural disasters. The island continues to need help to bounce back and thrive again. As a volunteer, you can make a difference.
Simply put, if you are looking for an opportunity to travel, and you are passionate about giving back to communities in need, there has never been a better time to volunteer abroad in Puerto Rico. The island depends on tourism, which makes up 10 percent of its economy, so you can imagine the economic impact that COVID-19 had (a decrease in visitors began in 2017 with Hurricane Maria). Any money you bring to local businesses offers a crucial infusion of cash that will help Puerto Rico get back on track.
In this guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know to get started with volunteering in Puerto Rican communities.
What You Can Do as a Volunteer in Puerto Rico
As a volunteer in Puerto Rico, you can do a lot to help communities rebound from COVID-19, Hurricane Maria, and the 2020 earthquakes. Most volunteer programs focus their work on uplifting those communities and environments most affected by these natural disasters.
For example, coffee farms, an important part of the Puerto Rican economy, are in the process of being coaxed back to life. Local fishermen are still struggling to navigate washed out roads. Most heartbreaking of all, there are families still living in tents and under tarps while they wait for homes to be built.
As a volunteer in Puerto Rico, you can lend a helping hand to coffee farms, fishermen, displaced people, and others. For instance, even in 2019, more than half a million people in Puerto Rico were still in need of safe, affordable housing. Then the earthquakes of 2020 damaged more than 3,250 homes, creating further hurdles for many Puerto Ricans. This is why you’ll find many community-focused volunteer programs in Puerto Rico. The rebuilding of neighborhoods will continue for some time.
You can also help Puerto Rico increase their ability to protect themselves against hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. The government, scientists, engineers, nonprofits, entrepreneurs, and other organizations such as International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) and people are hard at work creating ways to achieve greater natural disaster resistance. Be a part of that!
To sum it up, volunteer programs in Puerto Rico include:
International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ) is a leader in volunteering and interning abroad. Since it was founded in 2007, more than 130,000 participants have been placed in projects around the world. IVHQ operates programs in more than 40 countries, all carefully designed with local members of the community to ensure maximum impact.
As a result of its strong record for safety, innovation, and responsibility, IVHQ is one of the most trusted volunteer abroad organizations operating today. In fact, when major companies like Microsoft and Salesforce want to arrange corporate volunteer trips, they partner with IVHQ. So do respected educational institutions like the University of Michigan, UCLA, Berkeley, the University of Florida, and Northwestern University.
In response to Hurricane Maria’s destruction, as well as the earthquakes of early 2020, IVHQ continually designs and redesigns programs. This ensures skilled volunteers can easily connect with the Puerto Rican communities where they are needed most. No matter which option you choose, when you volunteer in Puerto Rico, your primary responsibility will be to serve the area’s immediate needs. As the recovery effort progresses, each project is adapted. Eventually, volunteer work will be focused on contributing to the island’s long-term success.
Choose from one of the following projects devoted to the health and well-being of Puerto Rico’s communities:
This community development project is designed to address the unique challenges of individual neighborhoods, so you could find yourself immersed in a wide variety of activities that change from day to day. Some participants have partnered with neighborhood organizations and community centers to deliver services to local citizens. Others have been involved in park restoration, planting, and cultivation of urban gardens, or improving classrooms and schools to maximize opportunities for education.
You don’t need any specific skills or experience to join this volunteer project in Puerto Rico. But any skills you do have will certainly be put to use for the benefit of the community.
Puerto Rico, being squeezed between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates, is susceptible to earthquakes and potentially tsunamis. This is why implementing sustainability initiatives has always been a priority in Puerto Rico.
In the wake of Hurricane Maria and the 2020 earthquakes, sustainability has only become more critical. The island is working to adapt to challenges presented by warmer climates and rising sea levels—not to mention the extreme weather that comes along with those changes. Through this program, you have opportunities to get hands-on experience in conservation. Some of the current projects include restoration of coastlines, waterways, and habitats essential for local wildlife.
It’s a difficult time for Puerto Rico’s youth—particularly those who lost their homes in the storm and earthquakes. Their families have been disrupted and in many cases, their education has been put on hold. The earthquakes of early 2020 delayed the start of classes for a while, with only 20% of schools reopening by the end of January.
When you participate in the youth support program, you will work out of a daycare center, after-school program, or community center to provide assistance to the island’s young people. Depending on the placement, you may offer mentoring, tutoring, or coaching in sports—and sometimes, all of the above. Note: IVHQ also offers teen travelers (ages 16-17) the opportunity to volunteer at a summer camp in San Juan.
All projects are based in the capital city of San Juan, where you will stay in a dormitory-style hostel. Programs begin on the second and fourth Monday of each month, and they operate year-round. IVHQ prides itself on making volunteer abroad projects accessible to everyone, so you can count on affordable program fees that start at just $20 per day. Depending on your availability, you can choose from opportunities ranging from one to twelve weeks.
Want more details on IVHQ’s volunteer programs in Puerto Rico? Click here to learn more and apply!
Other Organizations Operating Programs In Puerto Rico
IVHQ is a world leader in high-quality, affordable volunteer abroad projects. Their projects are a great choice if you want to volunteer in Puerto Rico.
Of course, IVHQ isn’t the only organization operating volunteer programs in Puerto Rico. These are some of the other opportunities available to dedicated volunteers:
The 2004 tsunami that took more than 250,000 lives was a turning point for the founders of All Hands and Hearts. They wanted to find a better way to harness the energy of the global volunteer community to provide immediate relief in disaster zones. They created an organization that “arrives early and stays late”, delivering services to individuals impacted by natural disasters. All Hands and Hearts has brought more than 60,000 volunteers to 19 countries to participate in 116 programs. By their count, the organization has touched nearly 1.2 million lives and returned more than 112,000 children to school.
The Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief project launched in January of 2018, and it has already succeeded in putting 3,250 global volunteers to work removing debris, rebuilding homes, managing mold contamination, repairing roofs, and renovating community facilities. An incredible 1,627 projects have been completed in just over two years, but there is still a lot left to do.
If you choose this program, you don’t have to come with construction expertise. All training is provided to you free of charge. Current assignments are focused on returning people to their homes, so you can expect to work on roof repair, housing renovation, and rebuilding of community infrastructure.
In early 2020, All Hands and Hearts expanded their project to help those affected by the earthquakes. In partnership with World Central Kitchen, All Hands and Hearts provides more than 10,000 meals per day to people impacted by the earthquakes. They also have been helping with the construction of sleeping cots for those staying in community camps.
If you want to volunteer in Puerto Rico and uplift those affected by Hurricane Maria and the 2020 earthquakes, put All Hands and Hearts at the top of your list. You’ll learn the true impact of smart disaster response and you’ll make a positive impact!
Habitat for Humanity is a well-known and widely respected organization that operates in communities around the world. Founded in 1976, they connect volunteers with people in need of housing, whether due to poverty, natural disaster, or other tragedy. They currently operate in more than 70 countries and has been active in Puerto Rico since 1997
Since beginning, Habitat for Humanity has helped more than 29 million people achieve stability and independence with new or improved housing. Focused on providing folks with safe, decent, and affordable housing, Habitat calls on more than 2 million volunteers each year to build shelters and raise awareness about the global need for housing. Based on those figures, Habitat for Humanity is the clear leader when it comes to nonprofit builders.
Habitat for Humanity isn’t new to Puerto Rico, but Hurricane Maria and the 2020 earthquakes have given its work fresh urgency. There are opportunities for individuals, families, groups, and youth to contribute to building and repairing homes for Puerto Rican residents. All of the work is completed free of charge to families, and you don’t need any experience to participate. Keep in mind that unlike traditional volunteer abroad organizations, Habitat is typically unable to offer lodging and other in-country support.
Summer is an ideal time for students to gain real-world experience, and Global Works specializes in creating those opportunities. With more than three decades of history, this organization has placed more than 13,700 volunteers in community service, language immersion, and cultural exchange programs around the globe.
Global Works founders have a special love for the island of Puerto Rico. After all, it was the site of the organization’s very first service project in 1990. At that time, participants contributed to rebuilding efforts in the aftermath of Hurricane Hugo. Today, Global Works volunteers are back to rebuild after the devastation of Hurricane Maria and the 2020 earthquakes. The project is designed for students in grades 9 -12, and it lasts for a full eight days.
During the time in-country, students contribute 30 hours to service projects in Villa del Río, a small community outside of San Juan. The work is typically related to rebuilding homes damaged by the hurricane. When the workday is done, participants are taken on guided tours of the must-see sites, in addition to spending quality time in cultural exchange activities.
Global citizens are those that feel at home, no matter where in the world life takes them. Greenheart Travel is committed to creating opportunities for everyone to become a global citizen. Their award-winning programs are carefully designed with an eco-friendly focus, and the organization offers funding for alumni who develop their own sustainable initiatives.
When you participate in Greenheart’s Sustainable Forestry and Permaculture Project in Puerto Rico, you gain hands-on experience with preserving existing rainforests and promoting reforestation of areas cleared for agricultural use. This program takes place on a 1,000-acre reserve in the island’s southern mountains, where volunteers are planting and caring for thousands of new native and exotic hardwood trees.
Your work may include data collection that is needed for conservation research, or you could spend the day caring for seedlings, saps, and mature trees, as well as the reserve grounds and trails. No matter how you spend your days, you’ll make a much-needed contribution to the area’s long-term environmental health. That’s important for Puerto Rico to recover from Hurricane Maria and the earthquakes.
As a non-profit volunteer abroad organization, Globe Aware’s mission is two-fold: They aim to develop programs that promote cultural awareness and support sustainability.
To promote cultural awareness, Globe Aware focuses on encouraging participants to recognize and appreciate the unique beauty—and distinctive challenges—that other cultures face. Their volunteer programs develop solutions to improve the quality of life in local communities, while still preserving local culture.
In terms of sustainability, Globe Aware wants its programs to support skills development. This way, communities can eventually pursue their goals without relying on outside assistance. The Globe Aware Puerto Rico Post Maria Rebuild project aims to do just that for communities still recovering from the massive storm and 2020 earthquakes.
As a volunteer in Puerto Rico with Globe Aware, you’ll head to Yauco, a city about 80 miles from San Juan. To assist with rebuilding efforts following Hurricane Maria, Globe Aware pledged to complete at least 100 homes each year—a praiseworthy goal. The program has become even more important recently. On January 15th, 2020, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake hit Yauco, damaging homes, schools, and businesses. This has created even more need for construction volunteers.
If you don’t have construction or roofing experience, you can still volunteer. The project is overseen by licensed engineers, and you will receive the instruction and training necessary to get the job done.
When the workday is complete, join fellow volunteers in exploring the island’s natural beauty. Wander among buildings notable for their colonial architecture or relax on some of the Caribbean’s most beautiful beaches.
Ready To Volunteer In Puerto Rico?
From building homes for displaced families to improving environmental sustainability, you have lots of ways to make a difference as a volunteer in Puerto Rico. Once you’ve decided which program is best for you, start planning your service experience.
To create your itinerary, consider talking with former volunteers so you’ll know how best to plan and what to expect during your experience. They’ll give you insider tips and advice. Don’t forget to include some fun activities too! Explore the history of San Juan, relax on the beaches of Flamenco, hike through El Yunque National Forest, and more. Sounds exciting, right?
To conclude, do your research and plan in advance. If you travel smart, a life-changing volunteer experience in Puerto Rico awaits!