When looking for volunteering projects in foreign countries, one of the first things to catch people’s eye is working with children. There are so many orphaned and impoverished children around the world in need of love, care and affection, and those of us who want to help know that we have the ability to deliver without much prior preparation.
So whether it’s teaching English, helping out in an orphanage or working in a daycare centre, the general thought process is that volunteering with children is likely to be an enjoyable experience for all involved.
But is that really the way things go?
There are varying opinions on the subject.
“It’s so rewarding!” is a common response to hear. “Incredible! Life affirming!” says another.
But then you ask someone who’s been volunteering with children for months, in a country so much more underdeveloped than their own that the differences are overwhelming.
“It’s difficult,” they say, thoughtfully. You can see the cogs whirring as they try to condense and vocalise a myriad of experiences and opinions. Child-based voluntourism; it’s at once both positive and problematic. And there’s a reason for the furore surrounding the subject.
People want to go where they’re most needed – where their efforts will be valued and appreciated – but they also want to feel good about themselves, and enjoy their experience. And this is where things get really tricky, because often those two requisites are at totally opposite ends of the spectrum.
Working with kids: it’s not as easy as you think
I’ve been volunteering with children of different ages in various countries and capacities for the last six years, and I’ve learned a few hard truths along the way.
Although I don’t profess to be an expert on the subject, I’ve certainly had my fair share of weird experiences and difficult moments – as well as a slew of happy memories. But the biggest adjustment I’ve had to deal with when volunteering with children abroad is that of expectations versus reality.
It’s assumed by many that working with children is a walk in the park. That simply turning up at a foreign school/orphanage/child-friendly arena will cause floods of bright young things to run joyfully towards you, Pied Piper stylee.
No matter that you don’t speak their language, know little of the hardships of their lives thus far, or have any awareness of what difficulties they’ll surely face later down the line. You’re a foreigner, eager to make a difference, arriving with the very best of intentions and a genuine desire to help. What could go wrong?
Sadly, the reality is that a lot can go wrong. And it often does.
A surprising lack of affection
“Put that child down! She can’t be held, she’ll cry too much!”
So it goes at my afternoon placement in the sunny city of Cuenca, where I’ve been falsely labouring under the delusion that looking after children from poverty-stricken single parent families may enjoy a cuddle or two from time to time. At the very least, some physical contact.
More fool me.
Apparently, the list of rules at this Catholic daycare centre is lengthly. It’s also apparently supposed to be learned by osmosis, seeing as none of the nuns working here have ever explained them to me face to face. Instead, I discover what I can and can’t do with the kids only when I do something wrong. Which seems to happen a lot.
This particular mistake of mine – picking up a crying one year old and holding her for a few moments – stems from an issue I simply can’t get my head around.
In this daycare centre, picking children up is not allowed.
The reason that I’ve ascertained is that their parents don’t give them enough love, affection or contact when at home, so anything they receive from you, a foreigner, is considered problematic. Something that, as a volunteer eager to help (and thus also play copiously with cute foreign children) I find really hard to accept.
Making a difference
It’s difficult to realise that your very presence can be debilitating, but volunteer organisations and care workers around the world know all too well how detrimental a foreign volunteer can potentially be to a group of vulnerable young children. Because many of the kids who are the subject of voluntourism projects come from difficult backgrounds, it’s likely that they develop problems with their attachment abilities.
When you throw in a constant stream of different volunteers who visit for just a few weeks at a time, thus repeatedly making and then breaking bonds with the children they’re tasked with looking after, it’s a recipe for long-term emotional damage.
Judging on the amount of bad press that short-term volunteering receives, it’s sadly clear why the nuns at my daycare centre are trying to enforce this rule. For them, it’s simple; the less attached the children get to foreign volunteers, the fewer problems they’ll have when the aforementioned volunteers leave again.
The hardship, however, is that so many people choose to volunteer with children precisely so they can forge an emotional attachment. Children are cute, fundamentally, and that’s why people are more tempted to travel thousands of miles to work with them.
Children need time – sometimes more than you’re willing to give
The problem is that children can get attached at lightning speed – particularly if they’re young, and particularly if they crave affection, and don’t often get it. Within three minutes of playing with the kids at my orphanage placement in Kathmandu, they were calling me sister and hugging me like we’d known each other all their short lives.
So if you only volunteer for a few weeks, you’re firstly barely scratching the surface of what it means to work at your placement, and secondly you’re providing those kids with a solely detrimental experience. Because while it’s clear that they love the attention, whenever it comes, they’re ultimately too young to understand that a brief moment of connection will be more debilitating than nothing at all.
When I travelled to Nepal for just a month before heading to India, I wanted to volunteer in Kathmandu the entire time I was there. So I found an organisation that offered volunteer work in orphanages, priced from as short a period as two weeks, with further payments for every additional week. Looking back now I’m really ashamed that I thought spending just a month in an orphanage would be sensible; but I went for it.
What followed was a painful realisation of how bad it is to give deprived children such a short amount of your time before leaving them forever. They clearly expected me to stay for much longer than I did, and it was heartbreaking to say goodbye, knowing they didn’t really understand; and, moreover, watching them immediately latch onto another volunteer that had just arrived.
Learning the hard way from my time in Nepal, I’d now stipulate that you should only ever consider volunteering with kids, and at orphanages in particular, for a period of at least three months or more.
While this may be a disappointment to thousands of potential volunteers who want to work with adorable children I say this; how would you like it if your new foreign best friend left you forever after thirty days? Or fourteen? Or even seven? It’s simply not fair to crush a child’s happiness in such a short space of time. Committing to a longer period of volunteering at least ensures you provide an organisation with a long-term version of yourself, as a resource to help.
There’s another, stranger issue concerning volunteering with children though, and it’s at the complete opposite end of the spectrum. What happens when it goes the other way? When, instead of stopping yourself from getting attached, the children do it themselves?
Some kids just don’t care that you’re volunteering
Put yourself in a child’s shoes for a minute. If you’ve dealt with a lot of hardship in your short life – whether it’s abusive parents, a lack of schooling, or abject poverty – there’s a strong likelihood that you’re not going to be concerned with the smiling foreigner attempting to hug you constantly for a mere month of your life.
Sure, it’s great to have a new human climbing frame for a while – and a foreign visitor is obviously interesting, particularly if they’re more lenient than the people who usually look after you – but ultimately it doesn’t make much difference to you.
On my gap year, when travelling through Eastern Europe, I arrived at a collection of ramshackle buildings near the city of Kaunas, Lithuania, eager and willing to work at a kid’s summer camp for two weeks. What I hadn’t been informed about before arriving was that this specific group of children, from the ages of five to fifteen, all came from care homes because their parents were either abusive, neglectful, overly poor or generally unable to take care of them.
What followed were two chaotic weeks of avoiding being bitten and hit by the younger kids; attempting to break up fights between the teenagers; and trying to explain to completely unconcerned ten year olds that smoking a pack of stolen cigarettes in the bushes was just plain wrong. The rest of the time I spent wandering aimlessly around the camp grounds because none of the kids were at all concerned with me being there.
It’s slightly undermining when you realise that the children you’re there to help couldn’t care less about you. Feeling under appreciated by a group of teenage Lithuanians shouldn’t have got to me, but it did! What was even more worrying, though, was how unconcerned the Lithuanians in charge were, too. Despite my constant pleading that ten year olds shouldn’t be smoking, not to mention stealing said cigarettes from other kids, they didn’t seem to be worried in the slightest.
Which is when you have to start addressing just how little you know about the culture you’ve suddenly landed yourself in.
And also whether it’s really appropriate for you to be there or not.
Volunteering from a moral standpoint – do you really know best?
When volunteering abroad you have an obligation, as a tourist and a foreigner, to accept that things work differently in different places. Even if you perceive a situation as being problematic or dangerous, it’s up to the locals you’re working with to let you know if you’re right or not.
It’s not all sunshine and light working with children, however much the volunteer companies paint it to be. Sometimes the issues faced by the kids in your care are so upsetting, and so alien to your normal life that you could be faced with an situation you simply don’t know how to handle.
Because your heart often ends up overruling your head.
Take the mystery of my missing money when volunteering at an orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal, for example. After a week of small denomination notes and handfuls of coins vanishing, I eventually realised I wasn’t going mad and one of the children was stealing from me. After talking to my volunteer coordinator, he instructed me to set a trap with a specific amount of money, a loose padlock and a half-hour time frame. Successfully catching the boy in the act, he was made to apologise and give me some of the money back.
But it was only after the eight year old culprit was caught stealing much larger amounts of money from a second volunteer that things really kicked off. He’d been giving everything to a friend of his at school who’d told him to “rob the rich foreigners when they’re asleep and we can buy video games”.
And when over a hundred US dollars had vanished, never to return, this little boy was sent back to his abusive father in the Kathmandu Valley, with no telling whether he’d be safe.
The only thing we could be sure about was that he’d lost his chance at a good education, and it was a direct result of me making a fuss about the theft. Something I felt morally obliged to do, as I could envisage the trajectory of his life; moving from petty theft to muggings to potential prison time.
What I could never have foreseen was his banishment from Kathmandu and the better life he’d been offered for just a few years.
I always think about Ramesh, and what happened to him when I left Nepal. Knowing that I was part of such a fundamental change to his life is an awful feeling; but I have to trust that the right decision was made, even if I think otherwise.
Dealing with things like this are what make volunteering not for the faint of heart. While the vast majority of placements will be great, and fun, and happy, there’s always the possibility for darker situations to arise – which is normally why there’s a volunteer program available to start with.
The hidden side to volunteering
This is why it’s so important to quiz the people who organise a volunteer project; who are the children I’ll be working with? What’s their background? How and why is my appearance as a volunteer going to benefit them, really? (Note: I’ll be addressing this topic in more detail in another article)
In my experience, it feels like a lot of volunteer companies seem more concerned about the welfare of you as a volunteer than of the children themselves. You’re also likely, as said volunteer, to only get the briefest of insights into how children are cared for and what difficulties they face. This is often because most volunteers don’t go through any kind of training before going abroad – meaning it’s likely that the places they work at don’t require much specific experience.
Thus the more difficult places, the ones with kids in real trouble, are essentially left for trained professionals to deal with.
Unless you come across it accidentally, of course – like a friend of mine in Ecuador, who was suddenly faced with a nightmarish situation at his teaching placement. He was working at a small village school in a farming community when a seven year old boy came to class crying. Pushed for a reason to explain his tears, he revealed he had been raped by his older brother.
When my friend questioned an Ecuadorian teacher about the situation, she sadly told him it’s something they don’t know how to prevent – because to compound the issue, this boy’s older brother had also been raped by another adult. Eventually my friend had no choice but to leave the placement; after time spent pleading with various officials he realised that, as a young, foreign volunteer, he simply had no way to change the situation.
How would you have behaved if this had happened to you? I know I would’ve felt lost, frustrated, and suddenly very scared for the welfare of these overly vulnerable children. Realising that these kinds of situations exist, however, and noting their apparent insurmountability, is what makes your resolve stronger; the need to make things known, to work towards a wider understanding and towards eventual change.
So why choose to volunteer with children?
And yet I keep coming back. Despite all the issues I have with the concept, and despite the difficulties, I clearly enjoy volunteering with children when I travel.
Obviously it’s because I love kids. But it’s something more than that; I want to understand the mentalities of the people who look after them, too. The auntie of an orphanage who decided to send an eight year old back to a home she knew was abusive; the nuns who shout when a crying baby is being placated by a foreigner; the teenagers who shrug when ten year olds, supposedly under their care, are smoking in the bushes.
Maybe I haven’t looked after children enough in my own country. But I’m pretty sure that the practice I’m getting from various countries is making up for it.
And ultimately, I’m just like the rest. I love the idea that I could be making a difference, however small, in a child’s life. And there are moments when I really believe that’s happening; like giving a class full of Thai children their phonetically-spelled English names; like making a Nepali eight year old understand that stealing is irrevocably wrong; and like watching an Ecuadorian teen’s eyes light up when she gets a grip on this foreign language of mine.
Working with children in Kenya, Lithuania, Thailand, Nepal and now Ecuador has undoubtedly changed my life. It’s made me more appreciative of my own childhood and upbringing. It’s made me overtly aware of children’s rights and the importance of providing children everywhere with the option of a bright future.
It’s made me humble, and grateful, and happy, sad, angry, joyful and a myriad of all the emotions in between. So I’ll keep on volunteering, despite the difficulties and in light of the problems. Because volunteering your time to help others is, in my opinion, one of the best things you can do with your travels.
And volunteering with children, in particular? It’s irrevocably changed my opinion of the world – for the better, hopefully.
This article is part of an ongoing series concerning my experiences with volunteering abroad. Further articles will be linked here.