One of the first things that UBECI tells us when volunteering is to be gentle and understanding with the children, as many of them lack appropriate discipline at home. This is definitely one of the greatest frustrations we encounter. We have been asked not to say “no” but ask and encourage, which is great… Except we face a severe language barrier. Still, it is crystal clear when a child is simply being sassy. For example, while we help children jump rope, José likes to walk up and hit the rope so he will get his turn earlier. Many times, we throw frustrated Spanish around, trying to explain why exactly we don’t approve of this behavior. In the end, it’s always something to laugh or lament about over dinner.
The topic of “voluntourism” has also been a hot topic at dinner recently. I know that the majority of the people who come here truly want to believe that their actions make a difference, but we also want to be informed about the true impact we have. I’ve heard stories about orphan scams in Cambodia, simply to bring in foreign money from volunteer tourists. An article about #InstagrammingAfrica opens: “Voluntourism is ultimately about the fulfillment of the volunteers themselves, not necessarily what they bring to the communities they visit.”
That’s really hard to hear when you’re volunteering abroad. For me, the experience is more than a collection of photographs and an item off my bucket list. I selected a program that I felt truly, albeit minimally, helped improve a negative situation. In addition, if you’re sensitive to the culture, volunteering is an effective way to learn about different people and places. Ultimately, this helps broaden my understanding of the world. I have referred to this experience previously as “selfish” because I know how much it is benefiting and fulfilling me, but ultimately, I hope that I have brought something to the community here as well. That is a thousand times more important.
I believe that this particular program does implement a few guidelines to ensure that the volunteer work truly makes a difference. For one, UBECI is run entirely by local people who are familiar with the culture and the root of the problems we aim to combat with the street children program. In addition, volunteers are not allowed to regularly bring a camera with them. UBECI understands that cameras not only distract the children and volunteers, but can also make the whole program a target for thieves. Volunteers may only bring their camera once during their last week, and are (obviously) encouraged to be respectful.
Personally, I feel like if I volunteer again, the biggest difference is that I would want to dedicate more time. As a first-time volunteer, or a full-time professional, it is natural to want to play it safe and spend only a week or two with one of these programs… but it is hard to form relationships with these children in such a short period of time. I do think the program could benefit from some continuity between the volunteers and the children by encouraging volunteers to stay for extended periods of time and breaking into groups to attend each market more than once a week. Unfortunately, this would require a larger staff with the UBECI office, as well as more volunteers.
I also hope to dedicate more time locally, because there is less of a cultural barrier and there is plenty of need within the United States.