Voluntourism: Should Volunteers Work with Kids?

Daniela Papi from PEPY Ride and I are starting to do a little research into the best ways for volunteers to work with kids.

Should it be at least 1 month? 2 weeks? Can it be sustainable at 1 day? What sorts of activities can volunteers do that is helpful and not hurtful in the long run?

We’d love your thoughts on this!


3 thoughts on “Voluntourism: Should Volunteers Work with Kids?

  1. Pingback: Voluntourism: Should Volunteers Work with Kids? « Voluntourism Gal

  2. Hi Voluntourism Gal and blog followers…

    Regarding the question of working with children, we’ve had a lot of experience at Para el Mundo (PaM) working through some of these challenges.

    A recurring issue is how to balance the needs of the children with those of the volunteer. On the one hand, volunteers have given up precious time and energy to become temporarily involved in projects important to the host community. On the other, community kids are exposed to a steady stream of “new friends” who stay for short periods of time, only to leave again back to their wealthy homelands. Community members are often acutely aware that volunteers derive their own benefit from their time in the community (be it improving resumés, gaining experience in environments they would not normally have access to, or even just guilt alleviation) but the reciprocal benefit derived by the community only emerges in the long-term of ongoing projects, and minimally from the actual impact of any one volunteer. As such, cynical feelings (at best) or resentment (at worst) can emerge. The kids can begin to see the NGO as a steady stream of (well-meaning) faces, much like normal tourists, and not as partners in the long-term improvement of the community.

    This is one reason that PaM has decided that we must charge fees for our volunteer stays. This is primarily to ensure that money is flowing back into the projects themselves, and not just covering the costs of housing and feeding the volunteer. In this way, the institution builds up its capacity to successfully organize and run ongoing projects, and can employ local staff who provide continuity and maintain institutional experience. While each volunteer is able to move projects forward during their time, and to benefit the community within meaningful small-scale interactions (attending to a patient, teaching a child, counseling a young person), the community benefits (improved community health, literacy, etc…) from the long-term institutional presence. This concept is central to “sustainability”, and is why the PaM founders have created a volunteer traveler service company, a “social enterprise” called Voluntraveler (http://www.voluntraveler.com), to properly recruit and review new volunteer applications.

    Longer stays aren’t just better, allowing community members to develop deeper friendships with the volunteers, they may in many cases be vital: medical, social service and educational work all depend on a relationship of trust between the service-provider and the person accessing services. Just as we may feel ignored, undervalued or passed off from one person to the next, for example in a busy hospital where we never get to see the same Doctor twice, community members may resent a constant stream of new faces. There is also the danger of community members developing dependencies on those professionals (especially with primary medical care, counseling, special needs kids, etc…) and of getting lost in the shuffle of a handover process. For this reason, PaM has required that volunteers in those areas stay a minimum of 3 weeks.

    The NGO must also be careful to under-promise and over-deliver when it comes to what it offers the community. Institutional dependency can develop and in some cases even impede the “natural” development of (more sustainable) local or government initiatives, where holes in service are seen to be plugged (however temporarily) by the NGO. “Slow and steady” is the motto of the truly long-lasting and positive-impact-having development projects.

    A second issue is how to properly protect vulnerable populations (including kids) while involving relatively unknown people (the volunteers) in potential positions of authority or responsibility. Thankfully we have never had a bad experience with a volunteer, but we are acutely aware of our responsibility to protect those that we are hoping to help. A thorough application process can help mitigate some of these risks, as can extensive and ongoing dialogue between the NGO and the community institutions it serves. While all volunteers must submit a CV with references which are followed up, when it comes to volunteers working with any vulnerable populations (e.g. children, the elderly, folks with disabilities) we also require a criminal background check. Similarly, we require those in the medical, social service & educational fields to have a recent First Aid and CPR certificate. This process goes some of the way towards protecting those we serve from potential harm. A large degree of communication between our NGO and local community groups and institutions also serves this purpose, by having an open channel between parents, teachers and community leaders, on the one hand, and NGO staff on the other. PaM, for example, has strived to create a community board that involves members directly. Aside from ensuring that community projects are genuinely community-driven and serve the most pressing needs as identified by the community-members themselves, this allows emerging problems to be quickly identified and addressed.

    Working with kids can be one of the most rewarding types of volunteer experiences. The host organization, however, has a responsibility to balance the needs of those kids with the desires of the volunteer, and to ensure a safe environment for those who may be vulnerable to abuse or exploitation. Any volunteer wishing to become involved should also do their best to ensure that the organization hosting their trip has taken these issues into account.

    Josh Hehner
    Director of Community Medicine Programs
    Para el Mundo (PaM)

  3. Hi Voluntourismgal!

    I’ve just read your question and I wanted to give you my own experience.
    Last year, I went trough a non-profit foundation in Costa Rica named Tropical Adventures to a volunteering tour in the same country.
    This program dealt with children teaching and caring.
    I was a bit worried about the effects that such a program could have with the children. A kind of guiltiness because you want to do the best you can but you still come from a wealthy country and will leave them after a while…
    My tour lasted 8 weeks and it took place in Puerto Viejo, on the Caribean coast of Costa Rica. What I did there was not only teaching. I played a lot with them, I made them laugh and they made me laugh back!
    I helped other volunteers who were there with me to paint and renew the building we were working in. We created a real relationship between us and them, even if I had leave, I know that I will be in their memories. I know that the time we spent together was amazing. And I could find out by myself that the money I paid was useful for this community.
    Wherever you are going, I’m sure you will love this experience and it will change you for the rest of your life!
    If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me!

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