Why You Shouldn’t Volunteer

Many of the young readers of this blog will do some adventure travelling in the coming years. It may be to Asia, South America, or Africa. It will be enthralling and life-changing. Over the course of your trip, you, like so many before you, will be swept up by the beauty of the people and the land and the goodness that they show you, and you may decide you’d like to give something back. You may be tempted to volunteer at an orphanage or childcare center.

Stop. Don’t. Unless you are a doctor, or maybe a carpenter, or any other skill that is badly needed in the day to day running of a child care organization, you may end up doing more harm than good. If you don’t have those skills, ask yourself exactly what it is that you will be contributing in your time there. How will the children’s lives be better off? Unless you are planning to stay six months or longer, chances are the orphanage needs your money more than they need anything else.

I did my own stint as a volunteer, in Cambodia, at a children’s home run by Save the Poor Children of Asia organization, or SCAO. I gave myself two weeks to make a difference.

I was skeptical — especially given the current situation in Cambodia. The number of orphanages in the country has skyrocketed with the number of tourists. Soliciting donations has become a major industry. Some organizations have kids perform dances for tourists, and a few have been indicted for holding children in deliberately bad conditions to jack up donations. Moreover, 71 percent of the kids residing there have living parents. Most of the ‘orphanages’ are more like child-care centers. The children’s parents have sent them to float the costs of their education, healthcare, and nutrition on the money of foreign visitors.

The orphanage industry has a horrendous dark side. In some cases, it is simply human trafficking, using children as a profit source. Even in the best of cases, where children are given good educations, better living conditions, and healthcare, their remains the dubious question of whether the children would be better off living with their parents. Case in point: stable children do not run up to strangers and hug them and demand affection, like they so often do in orphanages. Stable children tend to shy away from strangers. It’s a symptom of reactive detachment disorder, where kids are so starved for affection they try and connect with the first thing that walks through the door.

SCAO was very open about these problems, and turned out to be a marvelous nonprofit. I was surprised. It was a well run organization with dedicated and long staying volunteers that convinced me of enormous potential for good. And the kids were awesome. They were intelligent, promising, and fun to hang out with. They spent so much time around volunteers that a few had pretty good English, and you could converse, which is to say connect. Within three days of arrival, I wanted to throw all I could at these kids to help them to a better life.

Of course, nothing about my talent set had changed over those three days. When I found myself in front of an English class with twenty kids, 11ish, that spoke twenty words of the language they needed to learn, I felt about as helpless as Senator Wiener when his nude shots went public. I tried to teach them how to spell the numbers. Five kids managed, ten didn’t, and five were trying figure out how to shape the letter A. By minute thirty, I was trying desperately to come up with some kind of entertaining game that would pass the time, English be damned. By minute forty I was looking at the clock twice as much as they were, and by minute fifty I yelled “Thank you! You can all just go home now!” and earned disapproving looks from my Khmer teaching assistant for letting them out early. If you want to know what I’m talking about, ask any teacher how they did on their first week of class, then sit back and watch the horror stories roll. And they shared a language with their students.

Despite my best intentions, my greatest impact ended up being a series of science experiments that Chris and I organized for the kids. Something about a Diet Coke and Mentos geyser is just unforgettable. While I connected with some of the children living at SCAO, I wasn’t there anywhere close to long enough to really form a friendship. According to the longer staying volunteers, that takes at least three months.

There were some volunteers there that had made a tremendous impact. One had founded a computer class for the students. Another had brought in thousands of dollars worth of grants through diligent research and many applications. These volunteers had connected deeply with the children, and mentored them. But all of them had been there at least six months, some were staying a full year. To them, the short term volunteers were allowed in because of their donations.

If you do want to help, think through it carefully. A good rule of thumb is whether you’d be allowed to do what you want to do in your own country. Would you be able to walk into any school just to play with the children or assist the teacher? Would you be allowed to volunteer for a few days at a childcare center? If you can’t do it at home, then you probably shouldn’t do it in Cambodia/Honduras/Uganda. Perhaps more importantly, would you want to do it at home? Why are you in such a hurry to help foreign orphans if you’ve never thought about volunteer at home? In the words of friend’s international, children are not tourist attractions.

If you do decide to go, read childsafe’s guidelines first. Remember to donate to the organization you choose to volunteer with, but always to vet it for scams and legitimacy first. TC mark

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