Anne's Thoughts on Voluntourism
No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.
(Aesop, "The Lion and the Mouse")
I think of volunteering on our world trip not as a chance for us to change the world – it is more like giving the world the chance to change us.
I came upon this compulsion to volunteer quite naturally. It may be genetic. My parents are Peace Corps Volunteers (I don't say "were" because even though their actual volunteer time was over before I was born - I've always considered it an integral part of their characters). My three sisters and I were raised in a home brimming with guests from different cultures, exchange students, and expectations of community service. Their stories of volunteering in Malasia (Mom) and Thailand (Dad) were filled with anecdotes of how much they had to learn - rather than accolades of what the locals learned from them. I have taken that to heart.
Volunteering provides a unique opportunity to get involved in something bigger than ourselves – to forge relationships and open portals to understanding. I do believe that we have something to contribute, but I expect that the line between teaching and learning will be blurry at best. I am most looking forward to the people we will meet and the experiences we will share. I have SEEN things that have changed my perspective - but it is in the DOING, that risky leap of faith, the willingness to LEARN – that changes lives. I want that for myself and for my family. We can stretch ourselves to be more than tourists. For me, volunteering as we travel is more important than merely “seeing the world”.
Can you be a volunteer and a tourist at the same time?
Yes, of course! However, all you have to do is Google "volunteer thailand" to come face to face to face with the overwhelming number of options out there. I've found that narrowing them down requires time, patience, and clear personal "want/don't want" criteria.
While researching volunteering possibilities, I've found the term "voluntourism" or "VolunTourism" used predominantly by tour operators marketing a "unique experience" and a chance to "give back" to the communities involved in their specific trip. The package deals seem to cater to mostly "gap year" backpackers and retired folks - but some accommodate families - and look really cool. It is certainly tempting to have someone else in charge of arrangements - but I would say that paying to have the volunteer experience quickly went on the "don't want" list. There is no shortage of free or almost free volunteering opportunities the world over - they just require a bit more creativity and planning to arrange.
Our Version of Voluntourism
Well, we ARE on a budget, have limited time, and are travelling as a family - so we pretty much need to piece together our own opportunities. If we can do it - anyone can! Here is the WHERE, WHEN, WHAT, and WHY of the volunteer experiences we have lined up so far . . .
- PERU July - October 2012
Cusco - We have made a personal connection and enrolled in 6 weeks of classes at an immersion Spanish School (AMAUTA) and their affiliate Travel Agency (DOS MANOS) in Cusco, Peru. We love that they have arranged for us to stay with a Peruvian family, the rates are super reasonable, and that Alex and Leah will have a teacher all to themselves. They also have contacts with local volunteer projects including a school. After 6 weeks of class we will be free to decide how to spend our time and where to stay - we'll be leaving ourselves open to opportunities. I'd especially love to put my ESL Certification to good use. Our hope is that spending four months in Cusco will give us time to participate in the community, learn some of the language, and appreciate the culture more richly.
- CAMBODIA March/April? 2013
Ponhea Kraek - Our sponsored child, Neng, lives in this rural Cambodian village. We have been exchanging letters for the past 2 years and are excited to meet each other in person. We are asking Plan to make arrangements for us to spend time volunteering at the local school and hanging out with Neng and her family.
- THAILAND May 2013
Chiang Mai -
Elephant Nature Park Oh, yeah, the kids are super excited about this one!
To volunteer here as a family we submitted an application, were accepted, and signed up months ago for our two weeks in the middle of May. This experience will be not only about the elephants. We will be living in a hut with no running water, getting up early, helping prepare communal meals, and putting in full days of labor - How could we not learn and grow from that? There is a fee associated with volunteering but the money goes directly to supporting the rescue and advocacy efforts of Elephant Nature Park - so I'm OK with that.
More articles about the Elephant Nature Park:
The Nation (Thailand)
- CHINA June 2013
We are still working on setting up specific arrangements for volunteering in China - but we have a couple of great contacts there who have offered to help us with placements at:
It is inspiring to read about the adventures of other travelling families. The Earlywines are my favorite. Here is a link to their blog about volunteering in Peru. Vagabond Family is also proving to be a great tool for connecting with families engaged in long term travel. Special thanks to BootsnAll for their Indie Travel Challenge and "giving back" blog posts that inspired this one.
I hope that we will all catch the volunteering bug during our trip - and don't recover from it when we return to our life in Seattle.
Thanks for reading, I look forward to your comments.