I volunteered at an orphanage, and now I campaign against it


#StopOrphanTrips Blogging Blitz
This is the second post in the month long #stoporphantrips Blogging Blitz. It was originally published on the Epicure and Culture website. You can see all the posts and learn more about the campaign on our Orphanage Volunteering special focus page

Back in 2010 I was fed up with living in the United Kingdom. I wanted an adventure. I wanted to do something more socially orientated – something “worthwhile.”

I did a bit of research and talked to some friends, and ended up finding out about an organization that ran orphanages and educational centers in Kenya, Thailand and Indonesia. They were looking for Co-Directors, long-stay volunteers who would run one of their centers for at least a year. There was no salary, but accommodation and food was provided – and, so the conversation went – you would get first hand experience running a small non-profit and volunteering at an orphanage.

This sounds perfect! I thought.

The opportunity fit my budget, timeframe, the kind of commitment I wanted to give, and the things I wanted to learn. My friends were amazed at what I was doing. “You’re so brave” was something I heard often. The only person who questioned my choice was my Dad.

“What skills do you have to be the Co-Director of an orphanage, Anna?”

I shrugged his question off. I had a lot of great transferrable skills. They just needed someone smart and motivated. And I wasn’t prepared to let a small matter of relevant experience stand in the way of my life plans.

So, I got on a plane and went to Kenya. A white 29-year-old British girl with no qualifications in child care, child development or international development. I had no knowledge of Kenya, no knowledge of any languages spoken there, no understanding of the culture. The only vaguely relevant experience I had was a one-week teaching-English-as-a-foreign language certificate I had gained 10 years previously.

And somehow, I thought this was a good idea.

The Problem With Orphanage Volunteering

As you may have guessed this is a cautionary tale. I was completely, completely unprepared for just how bad an idea it really was. I spent a month in Kenya before I was transferred to another orphanage in Thailand where I spent a further five months. Although I was supposed to be there a year, I left halfway through. Why? Because during the experience I realized I was so under-qualified and unprepared that my best and most responsible recourse was to leave.

I did, however, learn a huge amount in that short time. To ensure you don’t make the same mistakes I did volunteering at an orphanage, I’d like to share some of these with you.

Here are the top five lessons that I learned…the hard way.

1. As a volunteer, you MUST have appropriate skills. 

If you don’t, at best, you’ll be pretty useless, and at worst you could be putting yourself and others at risk. I discovered this when I was faced with a situation where one of the older boys at the orphanage was threatening one of the younger girls with a hunting knife. She had accused him of coming into her room at night and sexually assaulting her. I had no idea how to handle the situation. This incident made me wonder what on earth I was doing there. The children didn’t need me. They needed trained staff and social workers who spoke their language. There is no place for unskilled volunteers in working with vulnerable children.

2. As a volunteer, you have a responsibility to think of the long-term impact of your actions.

It’s not just about you. Once you complete a project you go back to your home country and your real life, while the children and communities you have engaged with stay put. I didn’t think about this when I left the UK. I was so wrapped up in what the experience would be providing me that I didn’t even consider the impact I would have on the children I would be working with.

As it happened, the children were really sad when I left. Some were even angry, because volunteers tend to make promises they don’t keep like staying in touch or coming back to visit. I had promised to stay in Kenya for a year and left after a month. Vulnerable children shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of disruption in their lives.

3. You need to find out what you don’t know before you go.

Sometimes you don’t know what you don’t know. There are many things I knew I didn’t understand when I went to Kenya — such as language and culture — but I was prepared for that and interested in learning; however, there were other things I hadn’t considered, mainly to do with the social and economic causes of why children end up in orphanages and why that’s a problem. Also to be considered is why those things meant it was even more of a bad idea for me to be doing what I was doing.

What I didn’t know then that I know now is that orphanages should never be a long-term solution for children. There’s over 60 years of research that demonstrates that growing up in residential care such as orphanages can be harmful for children’s health, development and life chances. So orphanages also shouldn’t be used as a solution to larger social issues such as poverty or access to education.

Most of the children at the orphanages I worked at had parents, or some living family members (as is the global norm). They were there because they came from marginalized communities. I witnessed two children being separated from their father to come and live in the orphanage so they could go to a better school in the city. While I am a big believer in education, I also believe that a child should have a right to live in a family and have access to education.

The trauma that I witnessed those children go through in being separated from their parent was real and distressing. Separating children from their families should not have to be the only solution for them to be able to access better life chances. The more you support orphanages, the more you support this as a solution to challenges facing marginalized communities. We can — and should — do better. Instead, support organizations who provide rural education, income generation for families, foster care or provision of social workers.

4. Volunteers can undermine local initiatives for change.

In the context of the orphanages I worked with, this was very apparent. The founder didn’t trust local staff as she thought they would steal from her, hence it was only foreign volunteers who could be in charge of finances and key decision making. The children had few role models within their own community to look up to.

On a larger scale, and what child protection experts are concerned about in many countries around the world, is that volunteers make orphanages look like an attractive option for families. Volunteers bring money and resources, and are often assumed to be well-educated. Therefore, they are more likely to send their children to orphanages.

5. It doesn’t make sense to support badly-run organizations.

It’s very common to read volunteer stories where they visit an orphanage and find it half-built, with children in dirty clothes with little food. They are moved to help such organizations because they are more “in need.”

This is an understandable response, but actually doesn’t make sense in the long-run.

The organization I worked for was badly run, and as a result there wasn’t enough money to give the children nutritious meals or pay for school supplies. I felt compelled to work 16 hours a day for six months to try and see how things could be improved.

Realistically, I shouldn’t have been working with that organization at all. It would have been much better to give my time and money to a well-run organization that might have be able to give those children better support services.

In addition, badly run organizations can put people at risk. I saw this both with the children (see Point 1) and with the volunteers. Shortly after I left Kenya all the volunteers at the orphanage were arrested because they were volunteering on the wrong visa. They spent a night in jail, had to pay a fine and were then deported. The organization did nothing to step in to support these volunteers during that time.

Working For Positive Change

All of this (and more) is why I am so grateful for the opportunity work with the Better Care Networkand Save the Children UK to support their initiative to discourage volunteering in orphanages. Better Volunteering Better Care began in 2014, and is a global movement working with advocates from a range of backgrounds and sectors to raise awareness of these issues. Better Volunteering Better Care also seeks to support positive alternatives to orphanage volunteering, as there are lots of (better) ways to support positive change.

For ideas on responsible volunteering abroad, check out this advice from Next Generation Nepal – an organization working with vulnerable children in Nepal. Watch these videos from Learning Service and read up on these articles on Globalsl.org.

To learn more about how to support vulnerable children and families, explore the work of the ChildSafe movement, discover Kinnected’s work in Australia and find out about what Alternative Care Uganda are trying to achieve.

It’s a little weird to be campaigning to stop people doing something you once did yourself. Some of my friends have tried to reassure me about my experiences, telling me that “it worked out in the end” and “now you’re trying to put things right.” To be frank, I don’t think it works that way. Vulnerable children and communities shouldn’t have been put at risk just so that I could learn a few lessons and start making better choices with my good intentions. And it didn’t really work out in the end – the children I worked with are still in the orphanages, with volunteers still arriving all the time. I’m no closer to changing that situation than I was five years ago.

What I do hope can change, is that more people become aware of the problems with orphanage volunteering before they make the decision to book a trip abroad. That’s one of the reasons why this month, Better Volunteering Better Care is working with bloggers across the world to raise awareness of these issues. There will be a different article published everyday for a month, in the run up to International Children’s Day on June 1st. We’re also calling on volunteer travel organizations to stop offering orphanage placements as part of their product offerings.

Get Involved

If everyone who reads this can share at least one blog post in the month — if not more — there’s a chance to make a tremendous impact. If something shocks you, if you learn something, if something’s interesting or appalling, share it to your networks and raise awareness across global sectors and bring about the change required to #StopOrphanTrips. Don’t forget to include the hashtag!

Share this article on its original page by clicking this link and use the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips. 

Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at the World Travel Market in London in November 2016. Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips, too!

If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then please let us get in touch – we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign. For more information, visit www.bettervolunteeringbettercare.org, and if you want to learn more or get involved, email [email protected].

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