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Volunteering with Orphanages Abroad

Volunteering with orphanages abroad

While looking for a volunteer abroad project, just about every organization you’ll run across offers opportunities to work with children. Whether you’re placed in a school, a youth development center, or an orphanage, there’s no shortage of work available to help this underserved population.

This article will not highlight orphanages you can work with abroad. While it’s not my goal to deter you from working with them, per se, I do aim to educate you about the ugly side of orphanage volunteering.

“Pet the Children” Projects

Many well-intentioned individuals have been drawn to what Daniela Papi (formerly of PEPY Ride, and currently a heavy hitter in the volunteer abroad community) has dubbed orphanage volunteering “pet the children” projects, i.e., short-term outings to orphanages where volunteers do nothing of substance to help the children they visit.

Picture it this way: While a volunteer might think, “Ah, I’m leaving a bright spot in this child’s otherwise miserable life,” the children in turn see a constant stream of visitors singing the ABCs, giving hugs, and leaving behind crayons and coloring books. It’s not helping, and in fact, it’s hurting. It’s not the education they need, they’re not receiving long-term care from qualified individuals, and they’re not being provided the resources to grow out of their current existence.

Orphanages...without orphans?!

Furthermore, some “orphanages” don’t even house orphans; rather, they act as a front for less scrupulous business owners taking advantage of travelers’ kindness and first-world guilt. They promise money to impoverished, local families who believe they have little choice but to set their children to work (putting on shows, begging for money, etc.) for visitors’ donations. Donations, it should be mentioned, never make it to the families, ensuring they continue the cycle of poverty and exploitation of children.

Finding a program

Orphanage volunteer programs—good and bad—exist in abundance worldwide. The issue, however, is that crafty business owners know their market. They know how to answer your questions, and they know how to market all the right pictures and all the right buzzwords. In order to overcome this, here are a few recommendations for finding an orphanage volunteer program that’s really doing some good work:

[Consider the types of work]

If you would like to teach or care for children, it’s best to find a long-term program. Again, a constant stream of well-meaning volunteers hurts more than it helps. If you don’t have several months or longer to volunteer abroad, then you might want to provide professional services (such as pediatric care, if you’re a physician), or working with other day-to-day projects, such as gardening or light construction.

[Talk to people]
Child at an orphanage

Speak to the owner, as well as those staff that you’ll work with. Ask what their volunteers generally do—and get details. “Caring for children” shouldn’t cut it. Do you teach them? What exactly do you teach, and how is this structured and reviewed? Are there full-time teachers on staff? “Caring for children” also could cover pediatric assistance, day-to-day childcare, sports and arts activities, and—well you get the idea. Learn exactly what you will do as a volunteer.

Reach out to locals. Ask who your host family will be, if you have one; or if you’re put up in a hotel, speak with a manager to get an idea of the area you’ll be working in, as well as what to expect when you get there.

Reach out to alumni. If there’s a Facebook group for this organization, see if you can connect with members. Some volunteer organizations even have alumni listservs, or will be happy to put you in touch with previous volunteers. Post on travel forums or message boards, and find people who have worked with that volunteer group before. It’s one thing to speak with staff—they’re not going to put their own organization down. It’s completely different to speak with alumni, and try to find as many as you can! That way you’ll have a more objective idea of how the program is run and what to expect as a volunteer.

[Research]

If I haven’t pounded it into your head enough, learn where your money goes! “A donation to the project” is not sufficient. How much of your money goes where, and to what end?

Read volunteer reviews. If you’re familiar with any review database (TripAdvisor, Yelp, etc.), you know there’s always a chance that a business owner may pose as a client giving a glowing review, or conversely a competitor might pose as a client giving an extremely negative review. After a while, you can tell who they are, particularly if you find the exact same review in multiple sources. Just do your research, and it will pay off.

Final thoughts

To wrap up, I’m not going to include a list of orphanage volunteer abroad placements—I’ll leave it up to you to find those groups. Remember to keep a good head on your shoulders, and understand that working with children is a huge undertaking. This is not a case where every little bit helps, and we cannot make the argument that well-intentioned giving, even when ineffective, is still giving something. Either do it right, or don’t do it at all.

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Photo of Sarah Palmer

Sarah started Volunteer Global as a hobby during a college internship with the Peace Corps, and for the next few years, researched as much as she could about volunteer travel. She graduated from the George Washington University in 2008, and was hired as a Program Assistant with the Peace Corps' Coverdell Fellows team. Last winter, Sarah quit my job and began working with Volunteer Global full-time.