Forty years ago Cancun was just a collection of fishermen’s shacks, it has since grown to become one of the Caribbean’s largest tourist destination. Yet, Cancun’s pristine white beaches and crystal clear water is far from paradise for many who live in extreme poverty within the city. Nearly forty percent of people living in Quintana Roo, the state where Cancun is located, live in extreme poverty. Last month we visited Cancun and had the opportunity to spend some time beyond the high-end hotels, experiencing “the real Cancun”.

Experiencing the Real Cancun…
The taxi arrived at the The Westin Lagunamar, our family piled into the tiny white car and began driving down the palm tree lined streets of the hotel zone in Cancun. White beaches on the right and the bay to the left. We zipped past hotels that looked like “castles” according to my six-year-old daughter, Princes Two. As we headed further into downtown Cancun, the castles became shorter, less glamorous and the beaches disappeared. As we turned right, the taxi driver told us, “This Amigo, this is the real Cancun”.

Run down buildings with turquoise paint chipping off the walls. “Jesus Christo” painted on the deep concrete walls that were topped with broken glass and spears for security. Apartment buildings with clothing lines strung from one barred window to the next.

Honking at a pack of wild dogs in the road, the driver made the final turn, checked the address we had given him for a third time, parked and told us to wait in the car. He wanted to make sure this was in fact the correct location before leaving us. Frankly, so did we…

We had arrived at Huellas de Pan, a local nonprofit organization in Cancun that provides basic necessities – clothing, food, and medical needs – to children in need. We were there to volunteer one day of our vacation through the Give a Day Global program to help make and serve meals to the 150 people they help each day.

I had come across Give a Day Global a few months ago and was intrigued in the voluntourism program that connects international travelers with one day of volunteering. The purpose of Give a Day Global is to help travelers who want to get involved with a meaningful experience, even if they just have one day of time to give. This “experience” is aimed at helping community-based nonprofit organizations who are doing impactful work by helping them recruit volunteer labor and expand their networks of support.

I loved the concept of Give a Day Global for this trip, aka spending a few hours as a family giving back during our Thanksgiving vacation. Most volunteer trips I’ve found require a full week or more, cost hundreds if not thousands of dollars and aren’t always that easy (or safe) for families with young kids to get involved in. Give a Day Global’s program didn’t sound like this at all. It seemed like something we could actually do; bring the kids along with us all while still doing the “vacation” we had already planned. I was sold but had to do a bit more investigating before dragging my kids deep into downtown Cancun.

When I spoke with Kerry Rodgers, the executive director for Give A Day Global she summed the organization up with the perfect analogy.

“Just like AirBnB connects people who have space to share with those who are looking for a place to stay, we connect nonprofits that are in need of volunteers with travelers who are looking for interesting and meaningful daylong activities. In the same way that Airbnb allows the property owner a revenue stream, we help nonprofits create a donation stream, and we help travelers have an authentic, off-the-beaten-path experience that easily fits into any itinerary. We hope that it is a win-win!”

“But are the organization and their locations safe,” I asked her. After all, it’s not just me and The Husband anymore, we would have two little Princesses along for the ride. I needed to understand how Give a Day Global vetted the local organizations they work with to ensure they’re safe and legitimate?

“Our vetting process is quite extensive,” Kerry told me. “First of all we look for organizations that are located near tourist destinations and organizations that can easily accommodate one-day volunteers in their daily operations. We focus on organizations in five categories: education, health and nutrition, economic empowerment, environmental sustainability and wildlife conservation. During the vetting process we do a lot of research on the organization, ask a lot of questions to understand its integrity, effectiveness, and community involvement. We also have a representative of Give A Day Global visit the organization to make sure it is a positive experience.”

Huellas de Pan
Cesar returned to the taxi to let us know we were in the right place. He asked if we wanted him to stay or just come back at 2pm to pick us up. We chose the latter.

Inside, we were greeted by Jorge Ortegón, the executive director of Huellas de Pan and Darwin, a volunteer, who was there to help translate. Through Darwin, Jorge gave us a run down of how Huellas de Pan operated, the types of programs it provides for the 150 children and seniors it supports; 70 percent of those being children.

The focus of Huellas de Pan is to provide healthy meals and basic necessities to vulnerable members in the community in an effort to elevate not only the human bodies but also lift spirits and create a much needed sense of community. Maria Elena Ortegón began the organization seven years ago to help children and seniors in her community who were suffering from malnutrition. As Maria Elena put it,

“Hunger is violence. There is no need for this type of violence. Huellas de Pan is something we can do to make the community safer.”

Huellas de Pan doesn’t just dish out food and clothing to kids though. The kids have to “earn their keep” aka work for it. Maria Elena explained that all the children they support are required to attend school and share their grades in order to stay in the program. The organization doesn’t want to be a Band-Aid, they want to break the cycle of poverty within these kids family’s through education

“If one family member goes to school and then gets a good job, it helps the entire family. The need for education is then passed along to future generations within the family. Education breaks the cycle of poverty,” told us Maria Elena.

Getting to Work
Our job for the day was to accompany Jorge and another volunteer, Louise to collect food from two of the four hotels in Cancun they work with.

These hotels donate food to Huellas de Pan, which feeds about half of the people the organization supports. The food given to Huellas de Pan has been prepared for the daily buffets but never served or used. (It’s first-hand food that’s been prepared but wasn’t taken out to the buffet tables.) Instead of tossing out the food, saving it for the next day or selling it, these hotels help to feed those in need in their own community.

To date Huellas de Pan can only support 150 people; its waiting list is more than 300. There are more than 200 hotels in Cancun. It would only take 16 more hotels to join their cause for them to feed the people currently in the program and the additional 300…

It sounded like a no brainer for hotels to join their cause so I had to ask Jorge why they only have four hotels onboard. What are the other hotels doing with their leftovers? His answer was simple, “BASURE” (trash).

I want to give a HUGE shout out to The Grand Oasis, The Pyramid at Grand Oasis and The Oasis Palm for helping their local community by supporting Huellas de Pan. The next time I’m in Cancun, we’re staying with you guys.

As we drove to and from the hotels, filling plastic bins with scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, sausage, breads and fruit we chatted more with Jorge and Louise. With our broken Spanish, their broken English and Google Translate we learned more about the extreme poverty in Cancun and the struggles of the local community. Not to mention the struggles organizations like Huellas de Pan face due to lack of government support and high taxes.

When we arrived back at Hullas de Pan we had the opportunity to celebrate five birthdays with the elementary school children they support. We also got to enjoy a slice of the most amazing Tres Leches cake. It wasn’t until my kids started passing out pieces of cake to the children and watching as each of the birthday kids received a gift that they began to understand the level of poverty and what Huellas de Pan is really doing.

Princess One truly did not believe me – at first – that this was probably the only birthday present these kids would receive, and they may not have a cake or celebration at home. Watching her face I could see the realities coming together for her. She’s used to going to several over-the-top birthday parties each weekend, the concept of not having a party or gifts had never crossed her mind.

Cesar, our taxi cab driver arrived promptly at 2pm just like he said he would. On the drive back to the hotel he was interested in why we choose to spend a day of our vacation volunteering in Cancun. We explained that it’s the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States and we are very blessed to be able to spend it in Cancun. We wanted to give back to the place we’re celebrating our holiday. We also wanted to make sure our children see the realities of the places we travel to. As they get older, we want volunteering and giving back to be something they want and feel compelled to do. Doing things like spending the day at Huellas de Pan helps to shape this.

Not understanding what the Thanksgiving holiday is about Ceser asked us to explain. We told him that it’s a time to give thanks, a day to remember all that we’re thankful for. He was quite for a minute then said, “That should be every day, no?

“Yes, yes it should,” The Husband and I both said at the same time.

The next year one of our goals is getting out kids more involved in the local community and those we travel to. Stay tuned for more on this, including tips and how you can create a meaningful experience when you travel by volunteering. Are you already doing this? Have you done any voluntourism trips? With your family/kids? Please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear what you did, how it went and if you have any tips.

Get Involved – Volunteer Abroad
I highly encourage you to check out Give a Day Global before your next international trip. Check to see if they’re working with organizations and then get involved. Not only is this a great way for adults to have a unique and rewarding experience but if you’re traveling with kids it’s better than great. Showing them a different side of an area and way of life while giving back is priceless.

How to Get Involved with Give a Day Global
Volunteer one day of your vacation with one of the 16 nonprofit organizations around the world Give a Day Global works with. The organization also accepts donations on behalf of the nonprofits they work with; 100 percent is given to the group. If you can’t spend a day volunteering but still want to give back, you can select a destination/organization and make a financial donation.

Princess Two and Maria Elena Ortegón at Huellas de Pan in Cancun.

How to Support Huellas de Pan

If you’re traveling to Cancun and want to spend a day volunteering set it up with Give a Day Global. On weekdays volunteers will be able to help by preparing food in the kitchen, serving food to children and elderly people, organizing the pantry, sharing information about their hometown and engaging with the community members. On Saturdays volunteers can play with the children and participate in cultural activities in the local park.

Huellas de Pan relies on contributions to source healthful meals and safe community space to serve the community. You can make a donation to the organization as well; those who volunteer are asked to make $100 donation ($25 for children who volunteer.)

Elaine Schoch

Elaine N. Schoch

Elaine Schoch (pronounced the German way – Shock) is the editor and founder of Carpe Travel as well as an award-winning travel writer, wine judge, certified by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 and certified American Wine Expert. She is married to The Husband and has two kids, Princess One and Two – who’s interest and knowledge in wine is quite extensive. Not to mention the stamps in their passports.


  1. I wish I had known about this prior to my trip to Cancun this past summer. I stayed in the ‘real’ part of Cancun outside of the beach area and it was much different than all of the pictures that I had ever seen from people’s vacations. I think volunteering during travels is a great way to not only get to know the people who live in a place but also to give back – I will save this information for my next trip! Thanks 😀

    1. Thanks! Give a Day Global is a great (and newer) organization, I hope you’re able to do something with them in the future.

  2. What a great story, and adventure for your family to share. I always try to go beyond the beaches, but have never thought to volunteer. Maybe I will next time. Cheers ~ Lindy

    1. Thanks! It really was a cool experience and one that has made a lasting impact on my kids (so far). 😉

  3. We will be in the Cancun area with our two girls this Christmas, and would LOVE to spend a day or two helping somehow. Wondering if you have come across other opportunities? Thank you for sharing. We feel a little overwhelmed with where to start.

    1. Start with checking with Give a Day Global. They may have a list of screened organizations you can work with. Good luck!

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