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.
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.”
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.