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Volunteering in an orphanage abroad may cause more...

Volunteering in an orphanage abroad may cause more harm than good

In 2014, I arrived the favelas in Brasil to volunteer in an orphanage as an English teacher. I completed my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certificate the previous year and I had to build my CV with experiences even if it doesn’t support my financial needs. I had to do it for free.

“Hello, my name is Trisha. You are expecting me today. I am the new volunteer.”

“Oh, hi Trisha! We’ve been waiting for you. This is the first time we are going to have a Philippines person volunteer.”

Hmmm. Philippines person, I thought.

Favela Rocinha in Rio de Janeiro is one of the biggest slums in the country. According to an advocacy NGO Catalytic Communities, there are an estimated 1,000 favelas in Rio, and they are home to about 1.5 million people, or close to 24 percent of the city’s population.

On the other side of the so-called slum life lay the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema: white sand, pristine waters and a city bustling with life. It was so hard to believe that a place like Rocinha existed in a matter of a short distance.

Due to lack of effective sewage system, a strong smell paraded the small allies I walked in. The Teacher Aide showed me the place where the children are, and there, I found myself entering a room of kids mostly from African descent.

Teacher Aid called the attention of the kids. In a heavy Portuguese accent that I don’t recognize, she announced my arrival and told the children about me. They were all so cute and cuddly I couldn’t help it! One by one, they started standing, came to my direction and welcomed me with a hug.

Wow, that was really encouraging. Those hugs were the best I received this year. I tried not to be emotional as I don’t want them to imply I am pitying their current status. I mean, tears are usually interlinked with a negative but really, I was very happy that I wanted to cry! I volunteered with a lot of children in Africa and Asia but I found these Brasilian kids the most welcoming. They are not shy and seemed to have worked their way around tourists. Okay, they all stared at me like the letters C-H-I-N-A were written on my forehead but that’s usually what they think about Asians in this side of the world: you are all Chinese to us.

I started work immediately. I didn’t want to waste time. I was injected with so much positive energy it was inspiring! As a newbie, I had to observe first. I first assisted in washing the dishes and cleaning the tables then I had the chance to talk to some not so shy girls who braided my hair. 3-6 children were around me like I was a mascot while some young boys were staring at me from a distance while smiling. I was very happy. That first day was a blast!

It was time for them to leave and go to their respected quarters. At least that’s what I thought. The favela is so big I don’t think I will even remember how to get back to the main street. As I have an apartment in Lapa, I didn’t use their volunteer accommodation services. I chose to go home every day by bus because it wasn’t that inconvenient.

I met another volunteer while I was putting some toys in their respective boxes. She explained to me where the books, the blocks and the ‘soft’ toys (i.e. dolls, pillows, etc) go. While I was at it, I told her about the hugs I received when I arrived and how starting to volunteer made me feel.

“They are actually trained to do that. Every time a visitor comes, they have to be adorable and cuddly.” she said.

So, that wasn’t genuine? I thought.

“Oh really? But it still made me feel good. Do you know where the children sleep?”

“In their homes.”

“They have homes? I thought this is an orphanage.”

“Yeah they actually have parents but mostly they are working during the day and can’t look after their children. So they bring them here because they don’t spend a dime of their stay here. It’s convenient. Some of them have parents but have completely abandoned them so they stay in a little home the organisation provided for them. But not everyone can be accommodated. That place really looks horrible I think the parents should take their children back.”

I didn’t say anything. I was confused. On the way home, while I was in the bus, I was patching everything together: orphans mean they don’t have parents right? I mean, I wasn’t wishing for the kids not to have any but was just digesting the real meaning of being an orphan. I was really really confused. Why is that place called an orphanage in the volunteering ad?

I spent the whole night reading about voluntourism and how these orphanages operate. Sure, there are many in the world and my interest in volunteering in an orphanage was triggered by friends who did the same. They said it was life-changing and the simplest yet most rewarding thing they’ve ever done. Through my reading escapades, I found out that volunteering, yet visiting an orphanage abroad is a bad idea.

Orphanages are booming businesses trading on guilt

Some studies proved that only a quarter of children in the orphanages lost both parents. Like in the situation I was caught in, a lot of these children were abandoned because of myriads of reasons. These so-called orphanages gave the parents the ticket to “forget you are a parent. Dump your children to us,” kind of trip.

Of course, these organisations will receive money as they release their slogans such as “Help save the orphans of ____,” “Change a child’s life. Donate now.” and many other words full of pity that will surely make people donate.

It’s a guilt trip for teenagers on gap year to come and volunteer without pay; for middle class families who can’t physically help but have enough fortune to donate; for retirees who have nothing to spend their money on: the stream of help coming to orphanages has been overwhelming. The question is, where does the money go?

Foreign volunteers coming in and out of children’s lives for short periods have a negative effect

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Orit Strauss, founder of GivingWay (a platform where you can find volunteering opportunities with no membership cost) stated that this creates attachment issues, and doesn’t help the children form long lasting relationships with caretakers that they should be forming. For this and many other reasons GivingWay has taken a firm stance against Orphanage Volunteering and instead encourage programs that promote the keeping of families together; programs that offer family based care, income generation and social support.

Of course, a lot of travelers who come volunteer have good intentions, there is no question to that. The thing is, we are not properly educated about the psychological and mental effect of our actions to the people we are going to deal with, most especially in very depressed and poverty stricken area.

From learning this, I realised I was building my teaching resume in the very wrong way. I felt I was really going to do harm so I decided I didn’t want to continue anymore.

I immediately gave up my volunteering slot and told them I needed more time to evaluate the causes I am supporting. That’s the most honest I went but the Teacher Aid sounded furious as she had to find someone to replace me ASAP.

On finding sustainable volunteering opportunities

stay-connected

It is great to see that more people are advocating for responsible and ethical volunteering. GivingWay is a great example as it shifts the focus back to the non-profit organizations who can independently and directly engage with prospective volunteers so that the matching of volunteer skills and organization needs is enhanced and the impact to local communities is maximized.

Our generation is built to find volunteering as a channel in making our young lives more meaningful but I realised that it is never right to venture in causes we don’t have strong feelings for. From this experience, I have been very picky with the volunteering opportunities I take and promised that I will always do further research: not just get hyped about “I’m going to Africa to volunteer with poor children and it will definitely change my life!”

I am pretty sure we all have good intentions but we should also be responsible when it comes to deep worldly issues we are not educated about. I am not saying that all orphanages are corrupted which is the reason why there are real orphanages who are suffering but how do you know which one is which? The only way to make a difference is to be in the know: remember that the more you know, the more you can use your skills, expertise and energies in making this world a better world for all of us.


What do you think about volunteering in orphanages? I would love to hear from you! Leave your thoughts in the comment box below!

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Trisha is one of those people who left their comfortable life to travel the world and learn about life. Her style is to stay in one place she likes for 3 months (or more) to know what it feels like to eat, cook, speak and sleep in another culture that isn’t hers. She'd like to believe she's not traditionally traveling but she just chooses to be somewhere else all the time. Trisha also loves extremely spicy food, pineapples, plants and symmetry. In no particular order, her favourite cities in the world are Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong and Tel Aviv. Follow her life adventures on Instagram: @psimonmyway

  1. Gail

    8 December

    Hello Trish, (sorry if pa-FC) 🙂

    I have been once in a while following your blog as a silent lurker since you have inspired me with your trips at a young age and this post has caught my attention. You might want to visit https://www.ongood.ngo/
    These are the legit NGOs worldwide with .ngo domains/website. We can say they are legit since these are registered and validated per/by country. Thank you and keep blogging! 🙂

  2. anna

    11 December

    I agree that there are A LOT of organizations which exploit children turning orphanages into money making schemes. However, there are also loads of good ones. Bottom line, do your part and research! Great read! x

  3. Nancy

    11 December

    Wow, that was a real learning experience. I pray your decision will bring you to exactly where you want to be to help where it’s really needed. Don’t give up, what you do IS helping so many children and I admire the dedication you have had in the past.

  4. Skye

    11 December

    SO great you’ve written this post. I saw Tara Winkler from the Cambodian Children’s Trust speak at TED earlier this year and it really brought this issue home for me. People just aren’t aware of what’s really happening. So glad your shared your personal experience.

  5. Interesting read. Sadly a lot is done in the name of helping the poor which walks a very thin grey line and just like you unless you dig deeper most people just scratch the surface and leave confused. I can understand your problem with it “not” being an orphanage but then also believe that helping the poor learn is a good and noble job no matter what. However truth should prevail and everything should be made out in the open. A look at the stark reality of this world I guess.

  6. Nancy

    12 December

    Hello Trish,

    It sounds like an unfortunate experience at the orphanage in Rocinha. I like to volunteer and help others – it is disappointing to discover an organization is not what it claims to be. I agree that it is important to do a lot of research so that you can use your time and talents to help make the world better.

  7. Indrani

    12 December

    Voluntarism is a new concept to me. I need to study this well before I take this up. I too felt a bit confused over their definition of orphans.

  8. Holly

    12 December

    I am glad that you not only got an opportunity to volunteer, but to learn the effects. That is something I am sure a lot of people may have never even thought of, but after reading this I am like wow that is true. These children were already left for a multitude of reasons and now they are building a bond with someone who is going to end up leaving them as well. Makes you think.

  9. Megan

    12 December

    Good work on giving up your volunteering slot when you became more aware of what was truly going on. It’s sad that organizations these days take advantage of the voluntourism industry and use the good intentions of international volunteers to turn a profit and ignore the long-term effects of volunteering on host communities. No wonder there’s so much cynicism about those who want to become an international volunteer to “do good”.

    When structured correctly, I genuinely believe that volunteer placements can be mutually beneficial to both the volunteer and the local community, though it’s about doing our research, as you said, so make sure the cause is sustainable and being managed in the right way. I think the biggest obstacle to overcome is just making people aware of this need.

  10. Anita Hendrieka

    12 December

    It’s so sad that people take advantage of these kids and people who genuinely want to help. Thanks for spreading the message and providing information about people can find sustainable volunteering opportunities!

  11. Alissa

    12 December

    Hey there! This is an important post, thank you for sharing this and also for being honest about your experience. I believe that its important to hold ourselves accountable and I’m glad that you had the courage to do so and then to share with your readers. Orphanage volunteering can be very destructive, but oftentimes travelers looking to do something positive in the world get involved with organizations such as this and don’t realize the harm that they are doing… and that the labor/money of foreigners oftentimes contributes towards the exploitation of the very people they are trying to help. I am very, very cautious about volunteering abroad, because as outsiders to a culture there is so much that we don’t understand about the nuances and needs of a community. Like you said, it oftentimes becomes more of a resume builder and a “this experience changed my life!” type of deal for the individual – but at what cost for the community? I encourage people to find organizations that are run by members of a given community (as opposed to outsiders who believe they know better about the needs of a community than the community members themselves), and to ask LOTS of questions about where the money goes, “am I qualified for this position?”, etc. Even more so when it comes to volunteering with children.

    Anyway, thank you again for sharing this post, and I am looking forward to reading more of your blog!

  12. Mags

    12 December

    Wow. I wouldn’t even think to research whether an orphanage was legit or not! It’s such a shame that there are organizations that will take advantage of peoples kindness like that.

  13. Carla

    13 December

    Volunteering is one thing I would love to do soon on my travels too. You are right in evaluation first if the orphanage was legit or not. Here in the Philippines, its disheartening to learn that there are orphanages used by syndicates. Thank you for this eye-opening article, I also appreciate your writing style.

  14. abbey

    16 December

    I had a slightly similar experience and I wasn’t even travelling or going on voluntourism when that happened. Ever since that day, I became very wary of the charities or foundations I’m going to support.
    I’d like to share this helpful article for more insights on ethical volunteering: http://www.nomadicmatt.com/travel-blogs/volunteer-abroad/ and this part struck me the most, “too many volunteer projects can actually foster dependency on international aid and compromise the dignity of the people they are trying to help.”

    It’s unfortunate that I had to experience it firsthand before I learned that very important lesson. But I hope we get to spread the knowledge and prevent other people from falling for the same trap. Let’s not waste our energy and concern on organizations that are not really helping.

  15. Rajkumar Gaikwad

    23 December

    Hats off Trisha, keep up the good work.
    That really takes one mind to get the good work done for others.

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