Whether you're an experienced teacher with a summer free, or someone with experience in childcare who wants to give back abroad, contributing as a volunteer in an orphanage can be a viable and rewarding option. With an estimated 132 million orphans worldwide, there's no lack of opportunity .

Unfortunately, there are a fair amount of projects out there that are either improperly run or have been set up as an orphanage scam to take advantage of well meaning travelers by having them donate to fake orphanages.

Before you go, make sure you research and ask tons of questions to help make sure your volunteer experience has a positive impact on the local community. Make sure your program screens their volunteers and conducts background checks. Very rarely should you actually be allowed to interact directly with the children. Additionally, take a look at Learning Services' video on orphanage tourism to learn more before you go.

What is an orphan?

The United Nations defines “orphan” as a child under 18 who has lost one or both of their parents. This does not account for social orphans, children whose parents have been stripped of their parental rights due to neglect, abuse, or inability to care for another human being. When a child does not have a parent that is alive or capable of caring for them, their basic human rights and needs are not met. Their first line of protection is absent, leaving them vulnerable and helpless.

Why Children Become Orphans

The reasons that children become orphaned are varied around the world. On all continents, poverty is a leading cause of orphans, and is the underlying factor for poor healthcare and education. The AIDS epidemic, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, is a major contributor to orphaned and abandoned children.

Countries that have been plagued by war or natural disasters (like Haiti, Chile, Sri Lanka, Darfur, Niger, Pakistan, Mali, Chad, Syria, and Indonesia) also have an overwhelming amount of children missing one or both parents, in addition to a dwindling amount of people able to care for them due to the country’s dangerous and despondent circumstances. Countries with limited government stability are unable to produce funding for public assistance programs or qualified people to run and oversee orphanages or care homes.

In the case of social orphans, children can lose their parents through alcohol or drug abuse, mental illnesses, or outright abandonment. These children are highly likely to fall through the cracks of social care, and can end up living on the streets or being trafficked.

Downsides to Volunteering in an Orphanage

As mentioned before, the growth of the voluntourism industry has also sparked a growth in fake orphanages that are run as get-money-quick scam. Cambodia has a particularly large problem with such orphanages.

At said orphanages, fake orphans (usually children from families in the area who have been promised their child would get a better education or quality of life) live in poor conditions while tourists are allowed to visit for a few hours or days and then donate to the children. Again, the best way to avoid a scam like this is to make sure your organization runs a background check, has a minimum stay, and has been vetted.

Being an orphanage volunteer, especially those traumatized from the loss of family, can be incredibly challenging and distressing. According to AVERT, the most beneficial situation for an orphan is to be placed with an extended family network, or adopted, but this is not always an option. Those who are working or volunteering at orphanages must do their best to provide the semblance of an extended family.

Cultural sensitivity is always a priority, but you also need to be sensitive towards any emotional issues the children could be suffering from. Love and acceptance are among the most important things a volunteer can offer, and the longer you can commit to a project, the more a child can depend on you and have some sense of stability.

Volunteers at orphanages, both short-term and long-term, you can help with preparing food, cleaning the orphanage, mentoring, playing and interacting, teaching, doing administrative tasks, and more.

However, if you're only able to contribute for a short amount of time and don't have much prior experience working with children, it's more responsible to get involved with tasks that don't have you interacting with children on a day to day basis, like cooking, cleaning, or administrative tasks.

Children often form strong attachments to someone showing them affection or with whom they develop a bond, and they can be deeply hurt and confused when that person leaves after their volunteer term is over. For that reason, volunteering at an orphanage can actually have more of a negative than positive affect on orphans. That's not to say that you should never be allowed to interact with the children, but make sure you're doing so in such a way that their emotional well being is protected.

If you're unable to leave home and contribute as a volunteer, there are still plenty of options. Programs like Outreach360 and SOS Children’s Village allow you to sponsor a child, sponsor other volunteers, fundraise for projects overseas, raise awareness in your own community, and donate..

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