A glimpse into a shantytown on the outskirts of Lima, Peru
One of the most popular forms of volunteer work these days is through orphanages in developing countries. The appeal is obvious: the thought of helping abandoned children tugs on the heartstrings of any feeling person.
Orphaned children are one of the most vulnerable populations in any society, and there is a long-standing historical precedent for protecting them. In religious texts, followers have long been compelled to care for orphans and widows through charity and good deeds. So it's natural that those who are willing to give up their time and money to do international volunteer work would want to go where the need is greatest: orphanages.
A Google search for "volunteering in Peruvian orphanages" returns an overwhelming number of options. Initially, it is heartwarming to see such a great interest in serving abroad with kids. But good intentions can sometimes lead to tragic results, and orphanage volunteer work is a field rife with controversy and mixed reviews.
I can already hear you asking...
What's wrong with wanting to help orphans?
In principle, nothing at all. The idea of bringing companionship, aid, and education to vulnerable children in a developing country is a noble effort. The problem is that, in certain cases, this noble effort has been shown to lead to exploitation where paying "voluntourists" unintentionally create a market for orphanage volunteer work, thus making the orphans themselves a commodity, a money-making tourist attraction.
Like in many other parts of the world, children in Peruvian orphanages are often "social orphans", rather than orphans whose parents are both deceased. This means that they have been given up by families who are either unable or unwilling to care for them. In a country where 30% of the population is below the poverty line and family planning practices are still not widely accepted, it's not surprising that that there are children who fall through the cracks. But since many of these children are not "true" orphans, they are typically not available to be adopted, meaning they are raised by the institutions and released at age 18.
Is volunteering at an orphanage the best way to make a positive impact in Peru?
Children working on crafts at a daycare center in Peru
One of the reasons Peru is such a popular choice among international volunteers is because of the number and variety of opportunities to serve there. Working at an orphanage is not the only road to working with children; there are numerous organizations that partner with local schools and government programs for kids, such as Cross-Cultural Solutions' site in Lima.
Serving at an orphanage will typically require a longer time commitment than some other forms of volunteer work. When you think about the needs of children who have been orphaned or abandoned, this makes sense; it's important that they build stable relationships with trusted adults.
If you want to work one-on-one with kids, another question to ask yourself is how effective you will be in bonding and educating with them. Do you speak Spanish? If not, it may make more sense to seek out a project or service opportunity that requires less verbal communication.
If this is your first time working with children, you might be surprised by the challenges of working with children who have potentially been neglected or abused in the past. It's more complex than giving hugs and kisses. Children who have suffered from traumatic experiences or abandonment require predictable pattern for daily activities and an appropriate degree of affection from adults. An irritable or stressed volunteer will have a detrimental effect on a child who has suffered from trauma. You should think seriously about your own level of experience with children and whether you'd be able to handle the emotional drain of working in such an environment for an extended period of time.
I still feel called to serve at an orphanage.
Villa el Salvador, Peru
If you are in fact committed to the idea of volunteering in an orphanage in Peru, be sure to do ample research to assure that you do not choose a fraudulent or exploitative institution.
Is there a minimum amount of time that volunteers can serve? Requiring a reasonable time commitment from volunteers shows that the institution is not rotating strangers through the door regularly. It is vital that vulnerable (and potentially traumatized) children build stable, long-term relationships with their caregivers.
Does the orphanage do background checks on its volunteers? Although this might create a little extra work on your end, it's a good sign if the orphanage is concerned enough to do some detective work on its volunteers before letting them interact with the children.
Why do they need volunteers? Does the institution provide specific information about what kinds of work volunteers will be doing, or does it seem like they're simply trying to bring people through the door for a fee?
Where does the money go? If this particular organization is charging you a set fee to volunteer, do your best to find out how that money is being used. Try to speak with a representative from the organization to talk to them about it.
Search for reviews and feedback. See what you can find with a Google search on a given institution regarding their practices, funding, and reputation. Of course, the internet isn't always the most reliable source for facts, but it might help you find red flags. There may even be reviews written by former volunteers on third party sites (like this one for IVHQ).
If you are passionate about volunteering with children in Peru, you shouldn't feel discouraged by the controversy and questions surrounding orphanages. Instead, you should use the information to think critically about how to be more a more effective volunteer and to avoid unintended ethical pitfalls. Think broadly about how your skill-set can best be applied, and carefully question the motives of the organizations you're researching. A caring heart can go a long way, but not without a critical mind to guide it in the right direction.