Voluntourism: Intention Does Not Determine Impact

Today’s guest post is from Sarah Swank, who recalls her first experience of voluntourism and why she now advocates for a very different style of travel.

Volunteering has been a part of my life as long as I can remember. For about 10 years, I served as an acolyte, (kind of like a religious assistant to the pastor,) during Sunday church services once or twice a month. I think this either instilled or reinforced a practice of volunteering and service to others that has become important to me throughout my life.

The church I attended for most of my early years was a small church with a congregation whose members were mostly elderly adults. I grew up watching them all serve and volunteer countless hours in that church. They prepared meals and snacks for each service, cleaned the church, decorated for holidays, coordinated events and fundraising efforts, and visited members who were ill or lonely; though the budget was small, everyone pulled their weight to make sure that each task was attended to with great detail. I watched them and wanted to emulate their selflessness, eager to find more opportunities to help others in need.

Years later, I was attending a different church and found out about an opportunity to go on a mission trip to Jamaica with a group of students from our youth group. I was thrilled at the chance and eager both to travel to a new country and to finally have a chance to volunteer in a new setting. On the itinerary for the week: helping a church congregation build another room, visiting an orphanage and girls’ home to meet the children and students, and traveling to some of the parish members who were ill to pray over them. Of course, there would be plenty of time for fun too! A trip to a crafts market also made the itinerary, along with a fancy beach-side dinner on one special evening and nightly dips in the hotel pool.

I didn’t consider whether I was qualified for the task, whether our team could provide locals any real support, or what the point of visiting the orphanages and girls’ home was.

NEAR THE CHURCH WE WERE HELPING TO BUILD

At this point in my life, I’d never heard of voluntourism and knew very little about the ethical concerns of volunteering. All I knew was that I had to come up with enough money to cover my expenses and I would find myself in sunny Jamaica. I didn’t consider whether I was qualified for the task, whether our team could provide locals any real support, or what the point of visiting the orphanages and girls’ home was from the missionary perspective. It never struck me as odd that most of our planning sessions were focused on readying ourselves for the emotional and religious challenges we’d face rather than learning about the needs of the community we would be visiting. When my mother asked why us teenagers needed to go to Jamaica instead of sending the money we’d raised for someone local to handle church construction and caregiving, I became defensive rather than introspective.

Looking back, I now know that my trip bore the marks of many classic volunteer traps:

  • Visiting an orphanage (exploitative and harmful, causing more damage to the children who develop attachment issues than aid from any companionship or comfort we could provide for a few hours)
  • Performing unskilled labor (I had never done any sort of construction work, nor had most of the people on my trip – we were the least qualified bunch to try and assist with building a new room for a church)
  • Spending more money to arrive at the volunteer opportunity than on the volunteering itself (the money we spent on flights, hotels, and food was far more than we donated toward the construction costs, orphanage/school operational costs, or supplies for the ill parishioners)
  • We learned virtually nothing about the population we were traveling to serve, coming only with our own experiences and expectations of sharing our culture (specifically our religion) with any Jamaicans who did not share our faith
  • Despite my promises and intentions of return visits and fundraising efforts extending beyond our week in Jamaica, I have never spoken to any of the people I met there since returning home nor raised funds like I’d intended

As I look back on my time in Jamaica I understand why my mom was asking a lot of questions. I never felt compelled to go on another trip like this one and now I see that even in high school I realized the impact we made was not the one I’d hoped. I spent a while staying in denial about the whole experience, and one I accepted the reality of the situation, feeling guilty about my participation. Eventually, I realized that denial and guilt can’t erase my trip or prepare me to do better in the future. I realized needed to be proactive in my learning.

Though my experience has provided me with many lessons, I’ll share two things I’ve learned: one lesson is that our intention does not determine our impact. Just because we come with a goal of helping others doesn’t guarantee we will succeed. Just because we are uncomfortable doesn’t mean we are being helpful. I think sometimes we get this idea that because we didn’t have air conditioning or hot showers and we gave up our comforts of home, somehow our trips to an orphanage or our untrained construction work was more impactful than it really was. After all, we wanted to help and we gave up our time and money to be somewhere – how could that be wrong? But again, our intention does not determine our impact. As foreigners, we are not the ones who get to determine our impact.

It’s important that we don’t confuse real and impactful volunteering with experiences designed more for the “volunteers.”

HAVING FUN AT THE BEACH DURING MY VOLUNTOURISM TRIP

The second lesson is that travel is a skill that can always be refined, which is to say that we should never stop learning about sustainable and ethical travel and trying to improve in those areas. I think some people (myself included) avoid researching a tour or trip because we know it feels off and we don’t want to acknowledge that the experience is self-serving. To be clear, it’s fine to travel self-servingly! If you want to take a vacation, take a vacation. But it’s important that we don’t confuse real and impactful volunteering with experiences designed more for the “volunteers” than the recipients of the volunteer efforts.

This basically means we need to be honest with ourselves about how and why we’re volunteering. We need to be asking ourselves the questions of whether we’re really qualified for the work we’re signing up to do. We need to be taking the time to learn the background information about the people or organization we’re working with. We need to ensure that the people we’re helping have actually asked for our help. We need to be certain that our short-term volunteering isn’t harmful to those we’re helping or to an organization or community’s long-term vitality.

Thankfully, the resources are out there for us travelers to do so much better. While we can’t beat ourselves up over mistakes in the past, we can task ourselves with utilizing resources like Learning Service, local volunteers, and experts in the field to guide our travels when we travel to serve. I’m excited to take advantage of these important resources and I’m eager to connect with others around the world who are passionate about volunteering – the helpful way.

 

Sarah Swank is a 25-year-old working in juvenile justice who dreams about traveling around the world. Cat mom, coffee-addict, and lover of mother nature’s beautiful scenes, she blogs about sustainable travel for working women in her spare time and wants to work on minimizing her impact on the planet even more in 2019. Follow her blog Suitcase Six or follow her on Facebook or Instagram.The main picture is the view of the hotel and pool where her mission group stayed in Jamaica.

All the Questions I Never Thought to Ask: What I Learned From Editing the Learning Service Book

Alice Robinson reflects on a volunteer trip in Sri Lanka that she went on as a teenager and how it motivated her in editing the Learning Service book.

 

When I was fifteen, I signed up for a three week international volunteering trip to Sri Lanka. It was organised by a for-profit company and advertised and coordinated through my school. The trip was marketed as an opportunity to help communities affected by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. A few months in, the focus shifted from the coastal areas to central Sri Lanka, based on the logic that plenty of relief was already flowing to the coastal areas directly affected by the tsunami.

I was thrilled about the prospect of travelling to Sri Lanka and truly believed that we would be able to contribute meaningfully. We were expected to fundraise about three thousand pounds each. I threw myself into the task with zeal. I got up at 6am every day to do a paper round and saved every penny. I wrote to local organisations and asked people I knew to support my fundraising efforts, and as a group we organised events. I spent nearly two years preparing for the trip. When we arrived, we spent just under two weeks in the school – painting the walls, refurbishing a library and painting a playground. We spent a third week visiting Sri Lanka’s beaches and hilly tea plantations.

“It was only much later that I began to question myself.”

It was only much later, as I learned more about international development and the issues around international volunteering, that I began to question myself, my motivations and the ‘impact’ we had had. I realised how much I didn’t know or think to ask at the time. For example, how much input into or ownership of the project did the school management have? What was the nature of the relationship between the school and the company that sent us? How much did we disrupt the teaching and learning in the school? How much of the money we raised went to the company that sent us? Was anybody monitoring our activities? More fundamentally, why did we fundraise thousands of pounds to fly halfway around the world to do something we had no experience of, and that local people could easily have done themselves with a fraction of the money we had raised?!

Over time, I have started to see short-term international volunteering as another manifestation of the huge inequalities of our world: a world in which privileged young people from rich countries get to travel in huge numbers to countries in the global south, to ‘help’ and for their own professional and personal development (while companies that send them make a healthy profit), at the same time as a vast and complex machinery of border control is evolving to prevent people from travelling in the other direction.

Looking back, I can see a lot of things that could have been done differently, but most of all, I wish that I had approached that first volunteer trip with a lot more humility. There is a huge problem with the idea that inexperienced young people can ‘help’ in contexts they know almost nothing about, in a short space of time. This is fuelled by harmful representations of poorer countries and simplistic narratives about poverty, that suggest problems can be addressed through simple, apolitical actions; while neglecting the root causes of poverty and inequality, and our own role in perpetuating them.

“The reality is that so many of the issues that international volunteers set out to address are extraordinarily complex and inherently political.”

The reality, of course, is that so many of the issues that international volunteers set out to address are extraordinarily complex and inherently political. They are best addressed by those who know the culture, the history, the context, the challenges, the politics; those who’ve been there long before the volunteers arrive and stay long after they have left. There’s definitely scope for others to contribute, but it requires long-term commitment and a whole lot of listening and learning.

With hindsight, a lot of this seems obvious. But it wasn’t for me at the time, and it (presumably) isn’t for lots of people who still sign up for short-term volunteer trips abroad. The international volunteering industry continues to grow and grow. But if people were equipped with a bit more information, encouraged to ask more (and more difficult) questions and, most importantly, to challenge their own motivations, assumptions and privilege, they might make different decisions. I’m not saying no-one should volunteer abroad, but there are better and worse ways of doing it, and it should be approached with a healthy dose of self-awareness.

“Volunteering can be the beginning of a much longer journey of learning to be an ally in challenging the structural causes of poverty and inequality.”

This brings me to the Learning Service book. I learnt a lot from the process of editing it – about the scale of volunteering and the industry around it, about the harms it can cause, and about how it can be done differently. I also loved working on it because the authors were so dedicated to the book and its message, open about their own mistakes and journeys, and enthusiastic about different, better ways of doing things. But most of all I enjoyed editing it because it is basically the book that I wish that I had read at the age of fifteen, when I first considered volunteering abroad. It sets out a vision for a different type of international engagement: one that involves continual self-awareness, reflection and learning, and ongoing political engagement. It proposes a learning-centred approach to volunteering that involves proper research at the outset, suggests the questions that people should be asking of themselves, their motivations and of any prospective volunteering trip, and sees volunteering as the beginning of a much longer journey of learning to be an ally in challenging the structural causes of poverty and inequality. I am biased – but I want to put a copy of the book in the hands of anyone I meet who is considering volunteering abroad!

 

Alice Robinson is a PhD student at the London School of Economics and Political Science. Her research focuses on local humanitarian action in South Sudan. From 2015-2016, she was involved in editing the Learning Service book. You can find her on Twitter at @alice_miranda1. The photo is from Alice’s trip to Sri Lanka. An extract from this story appears in the Learning Service book.

“There Were Locked Rooms Full of Stuff”: My Experience As an Orphanage Volunteer

This is a guest post from Catherine Cottam, who volunteered at an orphanage in Kenya in 2012, about how this experience went on to shape her views and activism.

I was studying for my Masters in School Counseling when I first thought about volunteering abroad. I really wanted to make a positive impact on people struggling in another area of the world, specifically children. I wanted to feel like I was making a difference and like my life had some bigger meaning. I also really wanted to visit the continent of Africa because I was thinking of joining the Peace Corps and thought it would be a good trial run to see if I could live without all of the conveniences I was used to.

I was influenced by a TV star whom I admired going to an Kenyan orphanage to volunteer with his wife (Paul Wesley from The Vampire Diaries). I made up my mind to go to an orphanage in Kenya too, and found a voluntourism company that would take me, for a fairly steep fee. The whole trip was about two weeks, including two-way travel from the US and a couple of days’ stop off in London, so I guess I only spent about ten days volunteering.

Looking back on it, the company I went with was helpful on the front end but there was no sense of transparency. I know how much I paid for my trip, but I have no idea how much of that money actually went back to the orphanage. Of the money that did go to the orphanage, little if any of it actually went to help the children, as I believe that the owner of the orphanage kept most of it.

VOLUNTEER TOILET AND SHOWER AT THE ORPHANAGE

Many challenging issues arose at the orphanage where I volunteered. It was winter when I was there and the window in one of the dormitories was broken and had been broken since summer. Why had no-one fixed it? Some other volunteers and I came across two rooms full to the brim of donated items. Why had they not been given to the children?

One of the biggest challenges came when community members came to donate items like blankets and clothes to the orphanage. The kids really could have used the blankets especially since the window to the dorm was broken and it was cold at night. The kids were instructed to sing and dance for the community members that came, then play soccer with them. Everyone seemed like they were having fun, but after the community members left, the orphanage owner loaded up about half of the supplies in his car and drove off with them.  The other half was placed in a locked room. It’s possible that he may have taken some of the supplies to the other orphanage he owned, but I believe that many items were sold for profit. The children were cold again that night.

It wasn’t until a while after my trip to the orphanage that I found out how damaging voluntourism is for children in orphanages. On top of creating attachment issues by having a revolving door of strangers come into their lives then abandon them again, by donating money to an orphanage I was supporting the institution. Over 80 years of research show how awful institutionalization is for children.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but every child at the orphanage had surviving family members and almost all of them had at least one surviving parent. Most children in orphanages aren’t actually orphans. They are often trafficked to orphanages with promises of more food, better health care, and better education – away from loving families who just want the best for them. This is done to attract donations from volunteers like me to make a profit for the owners of the orphanages.

Looking back on myself at that time, I was naïve, and I worry that I did more harm than good. On the other hand, it also kick-started many good things in my life. If I hadn’t gone to Kenya to volunteer, I never would have met the person who put me in touch with Michelle Oliel, who is gracious enough to allow me to volunteer with Stahili, a wonderful organization that works to end the institutionalization of children and get kids out of orphanages and back with their families.

The main thing I’d love others to learn from my experience is to please never volunteer in an orphanage.  It perpetuates a system that exploits children and is actively harmful.  Volunteering at an orphanage may make the volunteer feel good, but it’s not helping the kids you are supposed to be helping. Instead, redirect your support away from orphanages by donating what you would have spent on a plane ticket or in fees to a middleman company to Stahili or another similar organization. You won’t believe how much good a family-strengthening organization can do with the same amount of money.

CATHERINE AND OTHER VOLUNTEERS PAINTING THE WALL OF THE ORPHANAGE

If you don’t have money to donate, try donating your time. I remotely volunteer for Stahili and it gives me a great sense of fulfilment without harming anyone. If you can’t do either of those things, try to educate yourself on this issue as much as possible.  Stahili puts out an awesome Weekly Media Review about issues in volunteering, with orphanages, and other child rights issues. Working with Michelle and Rob at Stahili has completely changed my perspective on everything related to voluntourism.

If you feel like it’s your calling to volunteer overseas and you really feel like it’s something you have to do, consider joining the Peace Corps or another similar organization that focuses on sustainability and development, places people for more significant amounts of time, has education or work requirements, and places a huge emphasis on training and cultural considerations. All these factors will help ensure you can give effective help – and not contribute to child exploitation.

 

Catherine Cottam is a 29-year-old blogger, activist, and advocate who has lived in the beautiful mountains of Western North Carolina since she was 8. Catherine has her B.S. in Psychology and M.A.Ed. in School Counseling, both from Western Carolina University. She served in the United States Peace Corps for five months in 2013 before being medically separated when she developed Bipolar Disorder. You can read more of Catherine’s work on her blog, follow her on Twitter or Instagram. To learn more about Stahili, Catherine’s favorite organization, please visit their website.

Why International Charities Need To Make Themselves Redundant

This is a guest post by Weh Yeoh, who talks about how charities need to need to work themselves out of a job to be sustainable.

“Well yeah, of course that makes sense. If you don’t plan your own departure from Cambodia, you’re just going to be stuck there forever. You’re not actually helping anyone.”

It was two weeks before I was due to speak at TEDx Haymarket. While chatting with a barista in Sydney, I mentioned the topic I had chosen – that international charities should plan their own redundancy from other countries.

And it seemed from a very brief conversation, that at least one person agreed.

It got me thinking. If after 5 minutes, a barista can understand the value in exit strategies, why isn’t this idea embraced by international charities?

There are so many well-intentioned projects happening in the world. Volunteers are flying everywhere. Used books are being sent cross-continentally. And yet, it seems that some problems are never truly solved.

My first degree was in physiotherapy. At university, we were taught the difference between addressing symptoms and solving problems. Treatment such as heat, ice and massage may make a patient feel better, but they don’t necessarily solve any underlying problems. They merely address symptoms.

The underlying problem is solved when the clinician isn’t needed anymore.

And yet, from working in China, Vietnam and Cambodia for over 8 years, it seems that the same logic isn’t applied to international charities. After all, how is it that they can stay embedded in other countries for decades upon decades?

Just as a clinician needs to plan their own redundancy, so too does an international charity. This ensures solving a problem, rather than addressing a symptom.

But the reality is that international charities aren’t structured to ever cease work. They are structured to perpetuate the work they’ve already started.

In 2010, I co-founded a blog, WhyDev, with my university classmate, Brendan Rigby. WhyDev existed to discuss international development best (and worst!) practice.

Since then I’ve seen a lot of charities that measure success like this.

This is not to devalue the impact of this work. There is no doubt that millions of people around the world have benefited from it. But this is simply measurement of symptomatic relief. It’s short term. And it perpetuates a phenomenon I call the hamster wheel of international charity work.

The hamster wheel works like this. International charities request funding, do the work, and then justify why they should get more funding. And this keeps on repeating.

While this hamster wheel exists, there is simply no business case for most international charities to solve problems. It’s much easier to address symptoms.

There is perhaps no country where this is more evident than in Cambodia, my home for 5 years. Anecdotally, I was told that the country has the second highest number of charities in the world, and the second highest number of UN agencies.

It was the recipient of an estimated half a billion dollars of aid money for decades.

And so, when I recognised the huge need for speech therapy services in Cambodia – a country with not one single Cambodian speech therapist – I was aware of the hypocrisy of what I did next. I started yet another charity.

But, in starting OIC Cambodia in 2012, we began with the principle that the organisation had to exit the country at some stage. This exit point was difficult to define, and it took at least a year for people to help me crystallise it.

But once it was defined, there was no ambiguity – this is where we are going. This is how we are going to get out. And it’s how we are going to ensure that Cambodia owns the work, in our absence.

Since stepping back from the leadership position in 2017, and handing over the project to our predominantly Cambodian team, I’ve had a bit more time to look around the international charity space. And despite how easily my barista grasped the value of exit strategies, in practice, this approach is not common.

I could count on one hand the number of international charities that are intentionally exiting developing countries. And despite the improvements in people’s lives globally, the markers of success hadn’t changed.

In 1985, a group of musicians got together to form Live Aid, with the promise of delivering 100,000 tons of food for starving people in Ethiopia. This effort may have inadvertently lead to the deaths of 100,000 people through an aggressive migration campaign. It perpetuated the image of Ethiopians as passive recipients of help. And it had no clear end point.

In 2018, the majority of international charities have not evolved past bean counting. They haven’t developed plans to move from “doing” to “stopping doing”.

And when I broached the topic of exiting with international charities, I tended to get two responses. The first was a feeling of being threatened. The second was apathy. This is when I realised that it was an idea before its time, and that it was an idea worth spreading.

When I was asked to speak at TEDx Haymarket about it, I took it with both hands. I wanted to make sure that the message was clear – we need to reconceptualise how international charities define success.

I also wanted to make sure I did the story justice. Early drafts of my talk were re-worked, thanks to some great advice. I had used language of “othering” in the first versions, unintentionally. I hadn’t explained clearly enough how international charities worked – as someone who had spent 12 years thinking about it, I clearly had some assumed knowledge. The talk was too short, then too long, then too short, then too long again!

Finally, after over 100 rehearsals, and after presenting it to 10 separate groups of people, I was ready.

The final video for the TEDx talk will be up shortly, so let’s reserve judgment on how well it went until then. But in the meantime, I’m glad the conversation is moving.

For international charities, getting back to the core of why we’re doing this work is vital. I don’t want international charities to view redundancy as threatening. I want them to see it as an opportunity. That through making ourselves redundant, we can shift resources to another part of the world, perhaps somewhere with an even greater need.

Because serving those in the world who need us the most – well isn’t that the point of charity in the first place?

 

Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and lived, volunteered and worked in Asia for 8 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies. He has volunteered in Vietnam, interned in India, studied Mandarin in Beijing and milked yaks in Mongolia. He is the founder of OIC Cambodia, an initiative that aims to establish speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia and co-founder of Umbo, a social enterprise bridging the gap for rural children to access allied health services.The main image shows Weh giving his TEDx Talk in Haymarket.

Why I Advise Gap Year Students to Use the Learning Service Approach

Marion Taylor is the founder of Taylor The Gap, a gap year consultancy for students. Here she talks about what she has learned through her own experiences in traveling and volunteering abroad.

 

Like in many of the personal experiences shared in Learning Service: The Essential Guide to Volunteering Abroad, I too entered Peace Corps altruistically hoping to “make a difference.” My rural program was entitled “animation” which in French means inspire, motivate, empower. As I came to learn very quickly, I learned much more from the local community members who came to be my family, than I was ever able to teach them. One thing I loved about Learning Service is that it points out the importance of working alongside local community members in ongoing sustainable community projects, which was exactly what I learned during my time with the Peace Corps.

I remember the first few months in my village in rural Senegal in the southern region of the Casamance. I lived in a Muslim district, and being 22, white, unmarried, and female, it took me an entire year to gain the men’s trust. At the onset, I instead mostly worked and bonded with the women, to create a collective garden (which was their request).

 

MARION IN SENEGAL IN 1979, SHELLING PEANUTS IN THE FAMILY COMPOUND

The women community members already had individual vegetable gardens behind their huts and clearly did not need any foreigner instructing them on the “how-tos” of gardening 101. I, however was fresh and very enthusiastic from a 10-week in-country training, and was set on measuring out 2 foot by 10 foot square-edged plots with even rows in which to plant American seeds. Seeds which the local people had never seen before, nor had any interest in eating or selling in their local markets. In hindsight, it was comical to see me measuring out perfectly rectangular plots with exactly seeded rows, while the women dug up big circular plots and threw the seeds willy nilly.

 

Frustrated at my inability to converse in Diola (the local dialect), or even to translate from my solid French to Diola, I decided in the end to dig plots using both the local method and my way, to compare the two. The local way won out by far, of course. The women’s plots were just as successful, if not more so than mine. They had little use for eggplant, carrots, peas, turnips, radishes, and the other variety of inappropriate American seeds straight from the Peace Corps office.

 In hindsight, it was comical to see me measuring out perfectly rectangular plots with exactly seeded rows

Another project I was involved in was an anti-malaria campaign for children under 5, which was supported by Unicef. Each week the children would receive a pill at the clinic during the rainy season, which would prevent them from getting malaria during that time. However, soon after the completion of the campaign, I realized that it had really done more harm than good. Overall the program lowered the natural resistance to malaria that all the Senegalese develop and build up over their lifetime. Periodically handing out a pill and then withdrawing it can actually make them more vulnerable. I had not thought it through in my haste to “help” prevent the young children from getting sick.

MARION VOLUNTEERED AGAIN MANY YEARS LATER IN RWANDA

Time and again I had the same experiences. My placement was long term, which was critical for learning the language necessary to live among the community in their homes. During that time it dawned on me that my job was to train and mentor local people in whatever the project was, so that they could take over and continue with it after my departure. I became acutely aware of not creating a dependency on me or my connections to NGOs or grant money. I worked with that goal in mind over the course of my third and final year, so that local people believed in themselves and had the capacity and systems in place to solve problems on their own.

Upon my arrival in Senegal, the only real “skill” I offered was the ability to speak French, which could be translated into a local dialect until I became fluent myself. The open mind, flexibility, deep listening skills, and cultural sensitivity – the less tangible “attitudes” described in the Learning Service book – were absolutely critical to learning about and understanding the cultural and religious values of the Senegalese. From that cultural exchange, I developed lifelong friendships and have returned on three different occasions with my husband and the two eldest of my four children.

While in Peace Corps, I became disillusioned by what I saw in the field of international development and abandoned the idea of joining the foreign service as a career. Instead, I eventually obtained my Master’s in Social Work and worked in the many areas of need within the US itself – such as domestic violence, AIDS, women and family health and empowerment issues.

The open mind, flexibility, deep listening skills, and cultural sensitivity – the less tangible “attitudes” described in the Learning Service book – were absolutely critical.

Interestingly enough, I have come back full circle to this field of international service after working in social work for over 35 years. The work I do today is about advising young adults to plan gap year experiences that are ethical and learning-focused. I myself flanked my college years with time spent learning French at the University of Grenoble and then my three years with the Peace Corps. In working with students and families, I have become increasingly more uncomfortable with, and thus leaning away from, gap programs that use the model of the volunteer as customer and hosting village as beneficiary.  I now actively warn clients against short-term placements that promise “change” for the locals with slick marketing and voluntourism. I also do not encourage volunteer programs that work with children for a short amount of time, or in orphanages, in animal sanctuaries, or medical placements for the unqualified.

After reading the Learning Service book, I now feel more confident framing the realistic outcomes of short term placements – it is more about exposure and learning about issues, what the authors call “learning service.” The Learning Service book focuses on the how-to of students’ learning about themselves before launching into a volunteer service program. I have also incorporated a five unit curriculum for my clients to raise awareness about themselves, to explore their own assumptions, and to raise ethical concerns regarding volunteering, prior to their gap experience. I’m so glad to have the Learning Service book as a resource; it is a guide that every gap advisor should read.

 

Marion Taylor is based in Boulder, Colorado and works as a gap year advisor with students of all ages and nationalities to plan out a gap experience, whether it be for a semester or year. She is married and the mother of four children ranging in ages from 21-30. Marion founded Taylor The Gap because it combined all her passions – women’s issues, international service, social work, young adults, education, language immersion, and empowerment. She is also involved with the launch and expansion of a women’s empowerment curriculum called Street Business School in Uganda and the greater Africa continent. The main image shows Marion with a basket-weaving cooperative in Gisenye, Rwanda.