Volunteering with Children Abroad: the Issues You Should Know

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?

School children in Hampi, India

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.

Young boy in Omkareshwar, India

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.

my daycare placement in Cuenca, Ecuador

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.

Volunteering with kids in Mombasa, Kenya

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.

Waiting to go home…

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.

Playing with orphans in Kathmandu, Nepal

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.

Human climbing frame time in Kaunas, Lithuania

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.

Child labour or helping out mum?

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.

Ramesh, top left, before discovering he was stealing money

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.

Shoe shining in Quito, Ecuador

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.

Happy street children in Orccha, India

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.

A local market in Quito, Ecuador

This article is part of an ongoing series concerning my experiences with volunteering abroad. Further articles will be linked here.


About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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65 Responses to Volunteering with Children Abroad: the Issues You Should Know

  1. Colleen June 28, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    Great points, Flora. Having taught elementary aged kids for several years I totally agree that you need to commit long-term to kids. It’s not fair for then to have to adjust to new people every few weeks. If we were in their shoes we’d grow jaded too. They need stability and constancy in their surroundings, especially if they’re orphaned or have been through some type of abandonment by adults in their lives already. It’s just salt in the wound when new people come through, attach, and then leave again. I don’t know what the ethical answer is, but this is a reason why as much as I miss working with kids I’ve decided not to volunteer with them on my trip.

    • Flora July 2, 2013 at 2:18 pm #

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Colleen. I can imagine it must be harder for you to actively not worksite children abroad, but having taught for many years there’s much more of a connection felt; and a bigger awareness of how difficult it must be for them to be constantly left. Hopefully the more awareness people have, the more change will occur for the better 🙂

    • Aludra Dalal October 2, 2014 at 9:40 pm #

      Great article. I think that volunteering combined with travel is the best way to ride. I just got back from Kenya, and unfortunately only read after about how a six week trip led a 21 year old student from England open an orphanage in Kenya! Travel can truly change us for the better: http://www.lukespartacus.com/encourage-story-mombasa/

      • Flora October 16, 2014 at 11:22 pm #

        What a great story – thanks for sharing, Aludra!

  2. Josh June 28, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    Dear Flora,

    Another very insightful post as well as thought provoking. I think you bring up a topic that is both very relevant in the volunteer sector, professional sector and also to general global narratives. I myself am British-Ecuadorian, having been adopted at 6 months old from Quito (and lived in Ecuador for 15 years thereafter). I have always dealt with 2 cultures and in that sense 2 mindsets. I have also lived and traveled extensively, for academic and professional reasons.

    In terms of volunteering similar to what you have done, I did in India and Papua New Guinea. Which is where I came to the same conclusions and also moral dilemmas, as well as the hypocrisy we have in the “Western world”.

    I say this because, us as tourists / travelers / foreigners heading to another land and volunteering in general or with kids, sounds great and for us it is very enriching. I am sure the local population would say otherwise. If the tables are turned, say and Indian, Ecuadorian etc came to the UK and volunteered with kids or in general, im sure the local population here in the UK wouldn’t be happy about it, and it would be something that would end up in the paper etc.

    When traveling and volunteering we are very idealistic and we think we can change the world by being there for a few months or weeks, I have certainly felt that, but the reality is that its a mere fleeting moment in other peoples lives, most likely, unless you bring a lot of money, things will be the same there as they were before. So perhaps its getting over our own arrogance in the “Developed world” that somehow we know better.

    That’s not to say that traveling and volunteering are life changing and affirming etc, I think the mentality to have is that you will get more out of it that anyone else. Unless you can fit into an immediate skills gap or finance gap.

    Its also arrogant of us to think that with out language, cultural knowledge, etc etc of the local area (this takes years to develop), we will make a huge impact. So I very much share you concerns.

    Sadly though, what you describe is also relevant in my professional sector, which is the Humanitarian sector (Disaster relief etc), think of the emergency work that Oxfam, save he children, Doctors with out borders, Care international, British Red Cross etc. Think of Asian Tsuanmi, earthquakes, conflict in Mali etc etc.

    While the sector has improved a lot in the last 20 years, since Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, etc crisis, there is still a lot to work on. How the global humanitarian system works at the moment, although it is changing is that, where there is an emergency, conflict or natural disaster, there needs to be aid workers. Which sounds logical, but the thing is, we have been heading back t the same places, year after year and doing the same mistakes, which is basically, wait until it is too late and then send in thousands of aid workers and humanitarian aid.

    Obviously it depends on the crisis you are talking about, but basically what happens now is that an Aid worker is sent to another part of the world, where they may not speak the language, to spend 6 months working in a place they have never been, with people they never met, and they are meant to be in charge. As this profession is highly skilled(sometimes) , it offsets some of the “uselessness” that one faces, in a volunteering role, but there are also huge problems associated with this model.

    1) Aid workers are paid more that local staff (and are in charge).
    2) Organisations stay only 6 months then leave.
    3) Aid workers that suddenly turn up in rural or urban disaster, normally bring a lot of money with their organisations, so this causes inflation or hyper inflation, as huge stock piles of food are shipped in from afar or large stockpiles of local food is brought. Thus causing a disaster or conflict economy, that crashes once they leave.

    4) Interpreters and translaters and drivers for aid workers are normally taken from schools, government, business etc, thus there is a kind of brain drain, as aid agencies, pay more. So you are affecting the local society.

    The list goes on, the good thing is, that the aid agencies are now waking up to the fact that, governments and civil societies, in the affected countries are now becoming better prepared and are taking the initiative during disasters.

    The truth is the person most likely to save you during a disaster is the person or persons near to you, not someone flying over from the UK.

    There are also several examples of when the Humanitarian aid community prolonged the conflict or disaster.

    Ethiopia in 1984. Which made sir bob geldolf famous, while there was a localized famine, it was only in a small part of the country, and the whole situation was man-made. The Ethiopian government at the time crushed a rebellion and instead of leaving it at that, displaced all the rebellion members and their families and sent them on buses to the dessert. The government at the time had a surplus in food, but didn’t send it to that area. It subsequently invited the aid agencies in too set up camps, so more people could be send to the dessert. So started a cycle that lasts till this day.

    The conflict in Rwanda,Burundi and DRC in 1994 (not the current conflict), was made worse, as refugee camps were used by all sides for Rest and Recuperation camps, as the War-ing sides, didn’t have enough resources to continue the war (food being the resource).

    I feel that i must stop myself here, as I could write an essay on the subject (i did during masters programme), but needless to say that while I paint a very sour picture here, of Humanitarian Aid, the sector i constantly improving, innovating, and becoming more inclusive of affected populations and more accountable. Also how else would you cope with 2 million Syrian refugees ?

    At the same time, it needs to improve more.

    I guess myself being both from a developing country and a developed country I can see both sides and try to find the best solution.

    So I thank you once again for a thought provoking blog, I hope you understand the parallels I was trying to make, as Humanitarianism is a huge and complicated and not easy to understand subject, as it evolves at a frightening pace. I am still learning.

    Feel free to contact me with any questions if you want to know more. If you are really interested, I would suggest working with the local red cross organisation. (Red Cross Organisations are neutral, impartial and independent and most importantly local)

    Take care!

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 1:38 pm #

      Hi Josh,

      apologies for not responding to this comment sooner, but thank you so much for taking the time to write such an emotive and considered piece.

      I think the primary difficulty is that people in the West have the time, money and energy spare to contribute to more struggling groups of people, and while there are ‘life changing’ aspects for both parties, ultimately the Westerners are always going to walk away – thus always having control of the situation, and probably taking the biggest change with them, too. The impact on ourselves, and the impact we think we’ve made, will probably always be bigger.

      But I still think there’s a strong argument for continuing to volunteer in these situations – it makes the world feel smaller, and allows people from much worse off backgrounds to continually stay aware that there are people from other places in the world that care about their well being – something I think is hugely important.

      Your humanitarian work sounds fascinating, and I’d love to get in touch with some questions at some point 🙂 I also really would love to work with Doctors Without Borders at some point in the future: I feel it would probably be a wonderful way to give some properly directed energy to communities that truly need it.

  3. Amanda June 28, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    Great, thoughtful post, Flora. You addressed so many important points, and I hope a lot of people stumble upon this before deciding to volunteer with children.

    I have a friend who did the Peace Corps for 2 years, teaching English in the Ukraine to middle-school-aged kids. Even after 2 years, after being so frustrated by the education infrastructure in Ukraine, she said she wasn’t convinced she made a difference at all. It certainly can be a tricky thing!

    Kudos to you for trying to understand both the positives and negatives.

    • Flora July 4, 2013 at 12:57 am #

      Cheers Amanda 🙂 I hope it’s a useful resource for people, even though it points out some of the negative elements to the experience.

  4. Kirsten June 28, 2013 at 4:57 pm #

    Thank you for sharing, Flora. You’ve addressed tough things I have always wanted to see in writing and have rarely seen. Certainly not shared so eloquently. Tough topic, but you nailed it. And I’m very happy to share this post forward.

    Thank you for suffering through the good and the bad so we can all learn through you.

    • Flora July 4, 2013 at 1:08 am #

      Thanks so much for the kind words, Kirsten 🙂

  5. Michelle June 29, 2013 at 8:16 pm #

    As someone who has never volunteered with children abroad, but hopes to one day soon, I found your post absolutely fascinating. As Kirsten says, thank you for allowing us to benefit from your experience.

    • Flora July 4, 2013 at 1:18 am #

      Wonderful to hear, Michelle! I”m very glad you can find something inspiring from my experiences.

  6. Britany July 2, 2013 at 8:09 pm #

    It’s so unfortunate that we have to worry about doing harm when we want to help out, but its also very true. These are really important issues to consider when volunteering with children – or any type of voluntourism – and I’m so glad you shared your thoughts on the matter! Ultimately, I guess the best we can do is thorough research before getting involved in organizations that promote voluntourism and hopefully, in doing so, the good will outweigh the bad.

    • Flora July 4, 2013 at 1:26 am #

      I think you’re right; the key to a good volunteering experience is ultimately enough research to know you’re making a positive impact and not a negative one!

  7. Andreas Moser July 3, 2013 at 10:33 am #

    I can’t deal with children.
    I have done some youth exchange work with teenagers from age 15 or so on, that was fun. It’s an interesting time in their lives, on the threshold to adulthood, they are looking for adult role models.
    But with infants, I would never know what to talk about with them.

    • Flora July 4, 2013 at 1:27 am #

      I think just helping to make them feel comfortable and safe is good enough, Andreas 🙂

  8. Lau July 4, 2013 at 3:29 am #

    I volunteered teaching English in Rio de Janeiro and totally understand what you mean. Unfortunately, my students had no interest to learn & hardly showed up to class. 🙁

    • Flora July 10, 2013 at 4:26 pm #

      Aww Lau that sucks! I can imagine how demoralising that must have been. Hopefully they still gained something from your teaching though?

  9. OCDemon July 6, 2013 at 2:29 am #

    This is part of the reason I stayed away from orphanage projects, since I’ve always felt it was something of an awkward situation, and volunteers who are seeking meaningful experiences aren’t always the best candidates for dealing with these situations. I think I’ll go for a park cleanup or something. You know exactly what benefit you’ve created, and handing the reigns to the next volunteer isn’t an issue at all. Thanks for the insight.

    • Flora July 10, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

      Good to hear you know your limits, and what you’re aware wouldn’t work for you. I think the ‘seeking meaningful experiences’ thing is always the biggest problem; often potential volunteers don’t put the needs of the kids they’re working with first. Although when it does work the right way, introducing a new volunteer to the ways of the project is a great feeling 🙂

  10. Sally July 20, 2013 at 3:22 am #

    I’m planning a stint volunteering in Mexico in 2014, and this post gave me a lot of perspective. It makes me really sad to think about all of the “mission trips” that churches all over the USA send out to orphanages and how they may be doing more harm than good. These are things that so many volunteers don’t even think about!

    So, thanks for writing this!

    • Flora July 26, 2013 at 11:18 pm #

      It’s sad but true – there are so many elements to volunteering that aren’t immediately obvious, and a lot of companies would prefer for their prospective volunteers not to think about them. But I hope this article will help a few people get a more balanced perspective before they choose to volunteer abroad!

  11. Dalene September 2, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    Flora – thanks for diving so deep into this topic that so many gloss over. We’ve done three volunteering stints with children (2, 3 and 6 months in length), and while it has been life changing and affirming, as you said, there have been so many instances that caused us pause. I would also argue that the same thing happens with slow travel immersion – without even volunteering. We’ve had one very painful experiences after getting involved in local communities, helping a poor neighbour continuously, and then wondering when we left if we actually caused harm in the situation.

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 1:31 pm #

      It’s an awful realisation when you think that just by being a part of a community you can harm it. But I think it’s really important to address the situation prior to getting involved and think: are you taking on this role for the sake of the people you’re ‘helping’, or more for yourself?

  12. Megan September 2, 2013 at 12:49 pm #

    Great post! You are absolutely right about volunteering being potentially positive and problematic. I always shudder when I hear about someone going to “teach” for a few weeks in a struggling area. Having good-hearted, well-meaning volunteers in a classroom sounds like a great idea, until you realize that few are experienced with children, familiar with the culture and/or have any idea how to teach anything. What about the kids? What is it like for them having a new “teacher” every few weeks? It’s so hard to know what to do with our good intentions. Flora, have you found any organizations that do a good job of vetting the different volunteer choices/training volunteers? There is so much potential good will, but how to do it in a way the really benefits everyone?

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 1:41 pm #

      It’s a long contested issue, Megan, because obviously a lot of organisations are ultimately more keen to get the maximum amount of volunteers they can, and that narrows down the chances of conducting a proper vetting process.

      I can say, though, that the organisation I volunteered in Ecuador with required a CRB police check prior to travel and at least two rounds of interviews, so I can imagine they have a pretty rigorous vetting process.

      I think training programmes are also highly recommended for a lot of organisations, but sadly its a further expense/amount of time that a lot of places don’t want to spend.

  13. Bronwyn September 2, 2013 at 7:14 pm #

    Beautifully written. This is such an important perspective. Thanks for sharing.

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 1:32 pm #

      And thanks for reading, Bronwyn 🙂

  14. TammyOnTheMove September 3, 2013 at 5:07 am #

    Great post Flora! It is such a controversal subject. In Cambodia, where I live, there are a lot of campaigns going on at the moment to stop voluntourism actually. The message of the campaign is that children are not a tourist attraction.

    I absolutely agree with you that people who consider volunteering with children shouldn’t spend less than 3 months at the placement. You can’t truly understand the problems when you are only there for a week in my opinion and as you said it can do more damage than good a lot of times (especially if the volunteer is not a qualified social worker). I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable volunteering with kids, but that is just me. I tend to do capacity building volunteer placements with NGOs, where I can work with adults and mentor them in areas they haven’t got expertise in. Of course you can only do this kind of placement once you have had a few years of work experience, but I find this kind of work very rewarding.

    • Flora September 6, 2013 at 1:44 pm #

      How interesting, Tammy – they want to stop all voluntourism outright? Or just in relation to children? I know how horrific the child-based voluntourism in Cambodia is becoming. I’d love to know more about this.

      Yep, I think three months is also a potentially good way to weed out the slightly less committed, and hang on to the candidates who really want to make some kind of impact. I think it’s great that you’ve realised you’re not a kid-related volunteer though! You’re clearly using your time and energy in a much more rewarding way 🙂

  15. Ann September 26, 2013 at 7:00 am #

    Thank you for your honesty. I have never had the opportunity to share my thoughts with other volunteers, and am grateful for the opportunity to do so.
    I volunteered in Thailand in 2011, and confess that the position was unsuitable, resulting in me and the volunteer organization gaining most of the benefits.
    My volunteer position involved teaching English to novices, at a Buddhist temple school in Nong Khai. The pupils were children of rice farmers, aged 13-18 years. For a fee, I’d be accommodated at the volunteer headquarters nearby, and receive three days training prior to placement in the classroom. Getting there also had to be financed by me.
    Immediately after arriving at my placement, the monk apologized, announcing the school was pupil free for the next two days, due to teacher meetings. He then revealed the school would be closed the following week too, for Buddhist Lent preparations. The information initially disappointed me, until I realized it was actually a blessing. Fate had stepped in to provide a journey more suited to my abilities.
    The temple school had professional English language teachers. This was so even in the rice farming village, where my weekend would be spent. Children attending the community school showed me exercise books where their English lessons had been written. They were quite advanced, and beyond anything I could offer.
    Prior to my trip, those aware of my commitment queried, “Are you a teacher?” The organization’s website claimed it wasn’t a prerequisite, and clearly stated, “You don’t have to be a teacher to teach English in Thailand. If you want to volunteer with us, but have no teaching experience, don’t worry, we provide different and extremely useful training at our center in Nong Khai. We help you learn to teach English to poor students overseas.”
    Naivety, and lack of common sense, resulted in me believing their words. Teachers were stunned to learn we were thrown before a class without proper training, and all agreed that in two weeks, nothing could be achieved. A retired Thai teacher from Bangkok revealed to me how lesson plans were always presented to the headmaster prior to each school week. Tuition had a structure, built upon what was taught the previous weeks. My fellow volunteers, Erin and Maaike, would have been the most effective at enhancing English tuition already in the curriculum, as they were qualified teachers. The only contribution I could make, if any, was to correct pronunciation.
    During the class, time crawled, the fifty minutes stretching forever. My blouse was drenched with sweat, after an extreme effort that drained every drop. Adrenalin was all that sustained me. Back in Australia, teachers confirmed theirs was a stressful occupation. One benefit obtained from the whole exercise, was my increase in respect for educators of children.
    On my third, and last day, the sub-Abbot didn’t accompany me, as was his habit after a few classes. The thirty teenage students were younger than my first class, and their interest vanished with the absence of their teacher. Holding the boys’ attention was managed somehow, but only just. Fear of the room erupting into pandemonium lurked constantly. Fortunately, it was my final lesson at the temple school.
    As for helping the disadvantaged, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) has been working for years to mainstream their concepts into Thailand’s national education system. Under their scheme, educational environments have to be healthy, and endowed with well trained teachers … So I wonder what UNICEF thinks of “voluntourists” like me, barging in on the school curriculum?
    Professor Richter, executive director of The Human Sciences Research Council, expressed concern in a paper about “voluntourism”. (The combination of volunteer service with tourism) He stated that because contributions are often brief, the work done is usually low-skilled. As a result there’s a danger of volunteers crowding out local workers, especially since they’ve paid for the privilege.
    Unfortunately, a guide on ethical volunteering hadn’t come to my notice before securing the position at the temple school. It strongly recommends, “Be honest about what skills you have to offer and take on a role that is appropriate. If you have never taught before, then just because you speak English doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to know anything about teaching. If you really want to teach, well then do a course, for example TEFL, (Teach English as a Foreign Language) and volunteer in a school in your home country before you leave.”
    My conclusion that fellow-volunteers, professional teachers Erin and Maaike would’ve made the most impact due to their work experience was conveyed to the Swedish director of organization I’d volunteered with. My opinion was that an enormous gap existed between me, and those trained to be teachers at university. By comparison, I was completely unqualified and inexperienced.”
    The Swedish director replied, “You did a great job helping underprivileged students improve their English. This does not require a professional teacher, so welcome back. Volunteering is always a win-win situation to help another world.”
    Six months later, I would accidently discover a scandal on the Swedish director’s facebook page. This resulted in me forming the opinion he was a sex-tourist in disguise, who established the volunteer organization to validate his existence, and to pay for his lifestyle.
    My volunteering stint in Thailand provided me with an authentic view of Asian culture. Living with the local inhabitants, enabled direct participation in their way of life. However, effort will be made in the future, to choose a placement more suited to my area of expertise.

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:20 am #

      Ann – I’m SO sorry I never replied to your story! It’s really important to research the companies you volunteer with, prior to starting a project, and as soon as you feel like something could be awry to discuss it with someone in charge. There are sadly way too many orgs that are mainly about profiteering and aren’t concerned with the welfare of the people they’re supposed to be helping.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences with us 🙂

  16. Mary @ Green Global Travel October 8, 2013 at 9:01 pm #

    Beautiful, challenging and enlightening post! I have often pondered the true value of volunteering in similar circumstances as well as the potential consequences of my presence in these communities. Thank you for taking the time to share your experiences and perspective. You have given me a great to think about!

    • Flora October 9, 2013 at 1:58 am #

      Thanks so much Mary! I’m glad you found the article thought provoking 🙂

  17. Mig November 9, 2013 at 1:11 pm #

    Thank you for sharing your insight. This article was helpful as I’m about to volunteer at a school.

    • Flora November 19, 2013 at 2:35 pm #

      Great to hear it, Mig! Hope you have an incredible time in your volunteering project 🙂

  18. Ross December 9, 2013 at 1:30 pm #

    Really well written post and you outline very well why volunteering isn’t such a black and white, all good effort to be involved in. I think your 3month policy would be a good one as people then wouldn’t only be going for 1wk or 2wks because it suited them or made them feel like they were ‘giving something back’.

    • Flora December 19, 2013 at 4:42 pm #

      Yep, I think a lot of organisations should start stating a minimum amount of time that volunteers should work for. Any less than a few months is ultimately doing more harm than good in a vast majority of cases…

  19. Ann December 19, 2013 at 10:30 pm #

    Well, I volunteered again, but this time as a trainee potter, well away from children. However, the organization I went with coerced me into also doing something for the school, due to my host, Surendra, being the founding principal.

    Due to no teaching qualifications, not even a TEFL, the only worthwhile contribution that could be offered, was in my area of expertise, art and craft. The organization’s director agreed, during a meeting in Brisbane, that art classes focusing on flora and fauna unique to Australia would be beneficial to the students.

    The first thing Surendra did after picking me up from Kathmandu Airport was to show me his school. In his office, my personally created photo book was handed to him that featured gum trees, koalas, and kangaroos. Much thought and effort went into its creation.

    I explained to Surendra that the purpose of the photo book was to provide inspiration for art classes, while educating students about flora and fauna iconic to Australia. He quickly glanced at the book, without reading it, and said, “Okay, you can do that.” The principal then escorted me to the art teacher to consult with him. Surendra asked me to introduce myself to the students by standing out front, and telling them what my intentions were. I queried, “Can any of you tell me where Australia is on this map?” Half the pupils lunged forward with index fingers flailing wildly about. Then I asked, “Would you like to draw pictures of kangaroos and koalas?” A chorus of young voices shouted, “Yes!” In my hands were plastic kangaroos and a fluffy toy koala that were then handed to the art teacher. I also gave him the photo book to study overnight in preparation for the next day’s class. I announced to the students, “See you tomorrow!” Surendra failed to inform me that the art teacher was only casual, and would be teaching at another school the following day. With the festival and strikes, I never saw him again. He took my photo book home with him, and didn’t return it until my final day in Thimi. I explained to the staff that the book was a donation, but wouldn’t be surprised if it’s already been discarded.

    So my first two classes were to replace the mathematics teacher who was sick. I had fun, and so did the students, but there was no art class. The rest of my classes were with the kinder-garden students.

    I’m not sure if I’ll volunteer again, because most organizations want to thrust unqualified westerners into a classroom.

    Ann from Australia

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:21 am #

      Thanks for your story, Anne 🙂 I can imagine this experience must have been rather depressing for you – but fingers crossed the students took away at least some bit of artistic inspiration as a result!

  20. Kelly March 26, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Hi Flora,

    Ive enjoyed reading of your experiences. My interest volunteer abroad has always been there just looking for the right opportunity. How would you recommend me to find the right agency? Do you have any regrets doing so?

    Any advise i would greatly appreciate. 🙂

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:23 am #

      Hi Kelly, I’m so sorry for not responding to your comment! There are so many different agencies for volunteering projects that it can be a bit overwhelming – I’d start by focusing on what type of project you want to do, and in what country/region in the world, then doing some research on Google to find ideas. Alternatively you can email me through the Contact page at the top of my site and we can talk more about your options 🙂

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  22. Sarah November 19, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    Hi Flora, I just came across your blog and this piece really resonated with me. Thank you for taking the time to write about the complexities of volunteering with kids! I recently spent a few months volunteering in Huaycán, Peru and struggled with the same questions. While most of our students were accustomed to short term volunteers, I’m sure the parting was no less painful when they bonded with certain volunteers. The volunteers who could stay longer definitely had a stronger influence as positive role models for the kids. I absolutely recommend longer time commitments for volunteers who can take the time off!

    • Flora November 20, 2015 at 10:26 am #

      Hi Sarah, I’m so glad you empathised with the issues raised in this article! It can be such a delicate situation – as you clearly know – but I do agree that volunteering with kids really can be valuable for both parties if handled in the right way. Longer time commitments, definitely!!

  23. greenteaandgranola March 23, 2017 at 2:40 pm #

    Out of interest, what organization did you volunteer with in Kenya. Im looking to volunteer there and would love if you had any recommendations

    • Flora April 2, 2017 at 10:41 am #

      I volunteered with a company called Camp Kenya, although I think they’ve now changed their name to something else. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend them because I didn’t have the most fulfilling experience – but then again, it was over ten years ago and I’m sure they’ve adapted and changed their programs in that length of time! Best of luck with your volunteering endeavours 🙂

  24. Ann October 3, 2013 at 9:26 am #

    Dear Flora

    I am so sorry to have offended you, as all that was intended was to share experiences. The words are actually from my own published travel memoir, titled “Mud and Metamorphosis”… ISBN: [978-0-9758447-5-5] …. Perhaps it would be better to establish my own blog, instead of replying to those of others, even though your writing style and photographs really did impress me.

    Ann from Australia

  25. Flora October 3, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Oh my goodness, Ann, I am so sorry!! The comment above was not at all intended as a response to your clearly heartfelt comment. I apologise profusely – this article about volunteering was linked to from a copycat site and I was responding to the linkback, not to you!! I’m going to delete the comment now but you have my honest apologies. I will aso be replying to your comment as soon as possible 🙂

  26. Ann October 3, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

    Dear Flora

    Thank you for your reply ….The comment did come across as being a bit strange, but I understand why now. You are a very competent writer so it’s not surprising others are plagiarizing your work. Many thanks for clearing up a misunderstanding. I look forward to reading more of your insightful blogs.

    Ann from Australia 🙂


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