Volunteering when traveling can be an incredibly rewarding experience, with lots of upsides. It provides a way to truly get involved in a place, meet locals doing everyday work for good, and have a true cultural exchange. If it’s done the right way -- with a vetted organization using sustainable, long-term practices and you’ve done your research -- it can also have a tremendous positive impact on the community.
But there can also be some pretty negative downsides, especially in orphanages, schools, and other programs that involve children. Stories have abounded about everything from poorly-run programs with volunteers that do nothing but swoop in to pat children on the head, get their photo ops, and then leave; to downright fraudulent orphanages and NGOs abusing the most vulnerable members of a community in need.
What to consider before volunteering with children
Caroline Boudreaux, founder of The Miracle Foundation, recommends strongly against orphanage voluntourism. In her work with orphanages in India over the past 18 years, Boudreaux has found that many orphanages lure well-meaning people to their institutions in hopes of getting donations.
“There’s really no good way to go into an orphanage for a week and get anything meaningful done,” Boudreaux says. “Often, volunteers end up doing more harm than good when their visit is so short-lived.” She recommends, instead, that people who have a strong desire to do meaningful work with children look at volunteer teaching programs. “Becoming an ESL instructor opens a world of possibilities for teaching children in a way that will really impact their lives.”
As you decide where and with which organization you’re going to volunteer, keep these issues in mind:
- How long are you able to stay? Short-term volunteering or parachuting in with the idea that it will help children is unlikely to do so. Children typically need consistency, especially when they’re in the vulnerable situations that require volunteer support. If you can’t make a commitment to provide that stability, consider if volunteering with children is the right choice for your trip.
- What work can you do which will have a positive impact? Many volunteers think that their work will consist solely of playing or bonding with children. Volunteering with children can take many forms, including teaching, providing resources, and building housing or community structures. Think outside the box for ways you can actually have a long-term impact during your volunteer experience.
- Is the organization you’re working with reputable? The easiest way to tell this is by reading reviews from alumni who’ve done the program before. If you’re comparing programs that are listed on Go Overseas, these reviews are on each program page.
With all this in mind, you may still choose to volunteer with children. Here’s where you might go, to have the biggest impact.
Choosing the right country to volunteer with children
Some countries might do well to be avoided due to high rates of corruption or scandal stories -- Cambodia, for instance, with recent reports of exploitation and abuse; Nepal and Uganda are two others with a host of recent problems in child-based institutions.
Other countries have a better track record with quality, long-term organizations. The most important thing is to exercise due diligence; look deeply into any organization, its history, and transparency, and the work being done. If you would like to volunteer with children, below are a few countries you might start with on your research.
The sunniest place in Europe, Romania is nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and borders the Black Sea. Medieval towns and castles dot the landscape, and the people are friendly and welcoming.
Romania has been in a flux of change and improvement over the past several years. There are still high numbers of children under the care of the government, and there are opportunities for volunteers to help support children in Romania.
Inspiring volunteer opportunities in Romania:
This beautiful island country just south of India is a big draw for those who want a South Asian experience. With stunning natural beauty from beaches to rainforest, an incredible history and culture in the ancient temples, traditional dance, and food, Sri Lanka is an inviting place with warm people.
However, the country still has a very low standard of living, with much of the country living in poverty. This causes many children to be left uncared for adequately, and so large numbers of government and private organizations need volunteers to help provide services for Sri Lankan youth. From basic care to educational tutoring, sports, games, and arts, working with children in Sri Lanka can be a very rewarding experience.
Inspiring volunteer opportunities in Sri Lanka:
This Middle Eastern nation has a rich history and important place as a holy land. While the political situation in Palestine is complicated, many refugees from countries such as Syria flee here -- many of them children. Volunteers can not only assist with children who need it but also become an ambassador for peace and cooperation in a way that helps bridge the divides. Often the most valuable thing that volunteer programs can bring children who have fled violence or war can be the simple chance to be kids; to laugh and play.
Organizations work with refugee children in centers that offer education, workshops, computer training and just time to play. Volunteers can also help with English lessons, sharing tech skills, and in leading music and art workshops.
Inspiring volunteer opportunities in Palestine:
Tanzania is home to hundreds of different tribes, a magnificent coastline, and part of the Serengeti with one of the largest wildlife migrations in the world. Along with the bucket list experience of a safari, Mount Kilimanjaro, the Ngorongoro Crater, and Zanzibar are other major draws that bring visitors to Tanzania.
Many volunteer opportunities exist that enable workers to truly immerse themselves in the incredible array of cultures to be found here. You can spend a week in a village, staying with a local family and completing projects such as building classrooms or dormitories; or opt for programs that empower females or work with communities on wildlife conservation.
Inspiring volunteer opportunities in Tanzania:
This relatively small country has retained more of its indigenous culture than its Central American neighbors; and while it has seen growing prosperity in recent years, much of the population still lives in poverty. Both within the larger cities such as Guatemala City and Antigua, and in the small towns and villages that dot the countryside, Guatemalan children are often in need of programs and volunteers to provide where basic needs are lacking.
Volunteer organizations typically run programs for education, healthcare, and childcare in communities throughout Guatemala. Volunteers could spend time in a gorgeous colonial town such as Antigua, or more remote regions where they can explore amazing sites such as the Mayan ruins of Tikal in their free time.
Inspiring volunteer opportunities in Guatemala:
Where will you choose?
As it comes time to choose where and with which volunteer organization you’ll spend your time, make sure you do your research. There are some good vetting sites out there to help with this, such as CharityNavigator and GuideStar to ensure that the organization you choose is legitimate. Another good way to get a sense of if your program will have a positive impact is by reading reviews here on Go Overseas. All of the programs linked above have reviews you can read before choosing the right program for you.
Wherever you choose to volunteer with children, it can be a very gratifying experience for both the volunteer and the families, if done in the right way with organizations that work locally, are doing long-term and sustainable work, and offer transparent information about their programs.