Your volunteer vacation bus pulls into the school and you all stream out. The children are all waiting in the courtyard. As you come in, smiling, happy children perform a culturally appropriate dance to welcome the volunteers. Sounds wonderful, right?
The first rule of trying to do good on a volunteer vacation is to do no harm. Unfortunately, far too much voluntourism involving children focuses more on making tourists feel good about themselves rather than protecting and helping children. Some of the harm is subtle and not easily apparent.
For example, in the example noted above, two things may be going wrong. First, did the entire school just stop its job of teaching kids in order to welcome volunteers? If so, how often does this happen? Once in a while on a special occasion like Earth Day or Valentine's Day is fun; too often and the focus on education suffers. What are the children getting out of the visit? Maybe the school administration is being paid for the visit; but what are the kids getting out of the volunteering?
A second apparent error is that the cultural exchange is one-way. The kids performed for the volunteers, but did the volunteers perform for the kids? It’s great to have respectful mutual cultural exchanges, where locals learn about foreigners and foreigners about locals. This kind of exchange encourages people-to-people connections and creates global citizens who think globally and act locally. A one-way cultural exchange reeks of cultural superiority, like the kids are paid performers—but not paid. One-way cultural exchanges rob children and locals of self-respect. BeachCorps will ensure that cultural exchange is mutual and respectful.
SAIH Norway has taken a strong stance against the darker side of voluntourism, often with humor, as in this video "Who
Wants to Be a Volunteer?" (Photo: SAIH Norway). Images matter. Responsible photography is critical with children. Not all parents want their children to appear in photos. Photography should not serve to boost the ego of the volunteer, but should empower local causes, including children. BeachCorps discourages selfies on a project, which tend to demean the cause and the children while inflating the ego of the volunteer. Particularly in poorer neighborhoods, BeachCorps will practice responsible photography and will restrict the number of cameras on projects, for security reasons as well as to ensure that photography advances the cause and doesn’t focus on sensationalizing poverty. A limited number of our volunteers will join us in capturing the project in photos and video, but under the condition that BeachCorps controls what is released in order to protect the cause and ensure we are conforming to their rules, including rules to protect children.
Other kinds of voluntourism cause worse harm. In too many volunteer vacations, unskilled volunteers actually teach classrooms in an endless parade of well-intentioned pedagogic incompetence. In BeachCorps projects, unskilled volunteers will never lead classes. Rather, they will be teacher assistants working under the supervision of a locally employed teacher. Our partnership with Rotary clubs will launch this new kind of volunteer vacation in the summer of 2019, with sales beginning in the summer of 2018.
The most notorious kind of voluntourism gone bad is centered around orphanage voluntourism, where kids are often separated from their families for a fee to pretend to be orphans. (Photo above: www.thinkchildsafe.org) Often volunteers stay a month or two with orphans, developing strong emotional ties to the children that are easy for the volunteers to break but not the children. Volunteer programs that are that careless with children might commit the ultimate sin of creating scenarios where unvetted volunteers might abuse children. That’s why BeachCorps has no current plans to work with orphanages, though one day we hope to provide scholarships to orphans who give back to their communities. All BeachCorps projects are designed to allow volunteers to interact with kids without creating the kind of emotional ties that can be harmful to a child.
Working with kids is great. It brings out the kid and the hope and the joy in us. Kids are our future. BeachCorps will create many opportunities to work with kids. Most of all, our long term goal is to ensure that half of all donations from BeachCorps volunteers go directly to scholarships for kids who are giving back to their communities. We are working on a plan with the Punta Cana-Bavaro Rotary Club to support Interact kids with scholarships, part of the Rotary worldwide network. Scholarships are a great way to ensure a bright future for kids while having fun on your volunteer vacation.
Because the best way to protect a kid is to empower them to protect themselves. That's the BeachCorps plan!
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