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.
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.
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.