Travel for Good

The best intentions, the wrong outcomes, and the questions we can ask to do better.

There’s quite a bit of controversy about “voluntourism.”

Especially when it comes to anything that involves kids. And for good reason. I’ll be the first to agree that harm has been done by well-intentioned travelers looking to give back and foreign aid in general. If you want some “light” reading on this topic pick up The Blue Sweater, by Jacqueline Novogratz or When Helping Hurts, by Brian Fikkert. They’re both eye opening and well done.

How then do I find myself, this very moment, at a group home in Arequipa, Peru?

I’ve been on both sides of this debate. I’ve been part of the well-intentioned traveler group that didn’t do much good with our “projects” and possibly caused harm by taking away work that could’ve been done by local professionals (unbeknownst to us at the time, of course). On the flipside I’ve been on skilled volunteer trips, leading teams bringing medical care, training, and/or sustainable solutions that positively impact lives long-term.

I’ve learned a lot about the responsibilities that come with international travel and volunteering in developing countries. I don’t know everything, not even close, but it’s certainly opened my eyes. 

I seriously debated if we should come to New Hope on our trip. 

Here’s why I ultimately did and some questions to consider before your next travel-for-good adventure. This is surely not the only way. It may not even be the right way. But I think it’s a good start. 

ASK WHY

First, I had to ask myself why I wanted to go? To make sure it wasn’t because I wanted to take pictures or feel good about myself or because it sounds cool, but so I could give back to the community that was hosting us. My husband was born in this country, so for us this trip is personal. We also both love to volunteer, it’s one of the things that brought us together when we first met, so it seemed odd that we wouldn’t look for an opportunity on this trip. Before you plan a trip to volunteer abroad, check your intentions by asking why you want to go in the first place. 

START AT HOME

This is another great way to check your intentions. For us, a group home isn’t new territory. My husband and I volunteer with foster kids at home in California, so we knew we weren’t interested because this one’s in another country. If you think you want to go volunteer abroad, do it at home first. You’ll be able to see that you truly have a heart for what you’re doing. Plus, you’ll also gain some skills!

DO YOUR HOMEWORK

Make sure the organization is legitimate and has programs that aren’t commodifying the people or children they’re supposed to be serving. This is one of this BIG issues that arises in the argument against voluntourism. In our case, we were able to research the organziation before we reached out. New Hope is a Children’s Home (as opposed to an orphange) similar to a group home in the US. Children live in small groups of 8 to 10 kids with their tutores (house parents) to help simulate a family living situation. Each group has their own apartment where they do all their normal life activities – eat meals together, do homework, spend time together, watch movies, etc. They’re focused on reuniting children with their families. 

DO YOUR HOMEWORK (PART II)

Once you’ve found a sound organization, make sure they have the capacity to utilize volunteers. In other words, don’t make them “create” an opportunity for you. This is often burdensome for the organization with little or no return. Ask them what they need and where you can be most useful. New Hope has a social enterprise twist, running a bakery and a hostel to help support their programs, so there are built-in opportunities to serve. We were able to ask them where their needs are so we know we’re supporting them in the best way possible.

KNOW YOUR SKILLS

Ask yourself if what you’re needed to do is something you’re skilled enough to do in your own country. If not, don’t do it. If you’re not apt at building structures or painting houses where you live, you’re probably not qualified to do it elsewhere. If you have a trade skill, are tech-savvy, or a medical professional, offer to use those skills instead. If not, cleaning, sorting or organizing is often needed. I emphasized that we were willing to do whatever is most needed within our skills sets, from cleaning to computing. 

GO TO SERVE

When you’ve checked off all of the above and you’re ready to go, go with a heart and mind of service. Our stay at New Hope is the longest of our entire trip. We do have some days set aside to see family and the amazing sights in Peru, which I highly recommend if you’re going anywhere — nothing wrong with that! But the big piece of our trip, the service piece, is at the core.

To be clear, this is not a post to pat myself on the back or claim I have all the answers. I assure you, I do not. It’s simply another way to think about and possibly approach traveling and giving back. There is definitely a wrong way to volunteer abroad, but I believe there’s a right way too, which means we shouldn’t throw it out altogether. 

Thank you for reading this long post!

All my very best,

Rachael

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