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Making a difference a world away: the benefits of voluntourism

Hill's (12) argument in favor of voluntourism, based on her summer in Thailand

Kyra Hill

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The term voluntourism refers to foreign travelers looking for an opportunity to drop-in and volunteer for a cause or group they support for several weeks in a land they can simultaneously sightsee in.

Despite the fact that these trips are embarked on out of a genuine care for others, there are negative aspects with sending temporary volunteers at a given site. Do foreign volunteers really make a substantial impact? Unfortunately, some organizations see voluntourism as more of a business opportunity rather than a chance to do good, subjecting children such as orphans to even poorer conditions than necessary to entice volunteers to donate more.

However, not all voluntourism is the same.

This summer, I volunteered in Thailand, partly because I wanted to practice my Thai, but mainly because I wanted to learn more about the people and culture of the second country I call home.

I first worked in Krabi, a small city in southern Thailand. through a program called Projects Abroad, which operates year-round. I was assigned to the Khao Tiam Pa Daycare Center, which is 45 minutes away from the middle of the town. The center, which houses thirty children from ages one and a half to three, is drastically understaffed and physically falling apart. The children come from very low income families, some with mothers who have been raped, others with learning disabilities or abusive parents. There are three staff members at this school, and for thirty small children, this is not enough – centers like these need volunteers simply because they do not have enough staff to adequately teach, support, and comfort these children. Next, I worked at the Viengping Children’s Home in Chiang Mai, in northern Thailand, without the help of a program. Viengping is the northern region’s primary orphanage and houses 120-140 children ranging from one month to 18 years. These children have been abused and are disabled due to abuse or birth defects. All have been abandoned by their families due to financial reasons. The children at Viengping are cared for by rotating nannies every day, but some children require extra care for them to feel comfortable, due to their disabilities. Because there are only so many nannies, not every child can receive personalized care. As a volunteer, I taught lessons, played with, bathed, and fed the children, but what that really translated into was loving and caring for them, because they had no parents to provide that.

I saw that there was not much required to make these babies and children happy – they are all under privileged and some have no families to go home to. Each of these children, with their endless smiles and infectious laughs, were bright, talented, and eager to learn. From my first day, I could see that the children didn’t need toys, movies, or even candy, but just attention and love from anybody willing to give it to them. For a disabled child unable to walk, carrying them around the grounds in the morning or sitting next to them on a swing was all they needed to smile, and for an understaffed daycare center, dressing myself in a white tablecloth and pretending to be a ghost was all that was needed to fill the air with giggles and squeals. While I worked, I witnessed the purest form of happiness, and it wasn’t just me and my fellow volunteers feeling content, but it was also the staff around us and the children climbing on our backs. By the end of my time at each of my locations, I was given the reward of the tightest hugs from the staff that had become my new friends, my children sitting me down and showing me what they had learned about colors and numbers in both English and Thai, and the babies I had spent hours with every morning in Viengping that had finally learned how to crawl. The accomplishments I attained were small, but meant the world to me.

Voluntourism can be branded as a business, and can be harmful to children especially, but there are cases in which volunteering can make a truly meaningful impact on a child who simply needs more love. Make sure you do your due diligence on a certain program before attending to ensure that they are well-intentioned and work with local organizations. Volunteers provide aid that make the process of learning and caring much more meaningful to that child, but more importantly provide care when the child lacks it.

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Making a difference a world away: the benefits of voluntourism