By Christine Condon
For Unwind magazine
Each year, about 10 million people travel abroad and volunteer. These “voluntourists” spend about $2 billion annually, Nancy McGehee, an expert on sustainable tourism from Virginia Tech, estimated for Reuters.
“Any organization can enter a community and proceed to conduct any type of volunteer tourism it wishes,” she told the Virginia Tech Research Magazine. “This allows for flexibility in cases of disaster, but it can leave already vulnerable populations exposed to well-meaning but potentially destructive volunteer tourism activities.”
A March article in The New York Times Magazine addressed the potential negative side effects of such activities.
“Unsatisfying as it may be, we ought to acknowledge the truth that we, as amateurs, often don’t have much to offer,” investigative journalist Jacob Kushner, wrote. “Perhaps we ought to abandon the assumption that we, simply by being privileged enough to travel the world, are somehow qualified to help ease the world’s ills.”
Numerous University of Maryland student groups volunteer abroad, and many find it both challenging and rewarding.
This university’s chapter of Students Helping Honduras, a nonprofit organization that builds schools in the Latin American country in hopes of breaking its cycle of poverty and gang violence, has single-handedly funded and constructed schools for the last four years, Carolyn Kowalski, the SHH Student Director of Operations, said.
The group breaks ground on a new school each winter and then returns home to fundraise the $25,000 necessary to complete the project during its spring break trip. Kowalski, a senior dietetics major who has spent a collective two months in Honduras volunteering, said students are able to attend the trip as long as they are able to fund it themselves.
A common criticism for voluntourist groups is that tourists lack the skills necessary to effectively aid communities in need, but Kowalski said her group’s presence had other benefits.
“We don’t need to be in Honduras building these schools, the Hondurans … could probably build a school in a fraction of the time if we weren’t there,” she said. “The primary purpose of us being on a trip is to kind of have us form bonds with the children that will be going to the school, and their families … so that when we do come back and what they need from us is the funds, so that kind of lights the fire inside of us [to fundraise].”
According to experts such as McGee, a large issue with voluntourism groups can be that they choose what a community needs, instead of allowing communities to decide for themselves. Kowalski said that Students Helping Honduras works to avoid this.
“[Other] organizations kind of decide on their own what a community needs…with our organization, the communities have to come together and the vast majority of the time they are coming to us and saying ‘We have these teachers, we have these students, and all we really need is the building,’” she said.
Kowalski said the group tries to educate its volunteers surrounding the root of the problems in Honduras before they go on a trip.
“It’s not a bad thing to want to travel,” she said. “We just try to educate our volunteers as much as we can to know that they aren’t just traveling on a spring break and winter break trip where they can just go and have a lot of fun.”
Kowalski said the organization often receives criticism for focusing their its abroad, rather than locally.
“The most impoverished people in the United States are significantly wealthier than the most impoverished people in Honduras,” she said. “In the states we do have a lot of laws and infrastructure and programs to assist people that are in poverty, and in Honduras as well as in other developing countries, that infrastructure doesn’t exist.”
Steve Sexton, this university’s SHH chapter president, said the group emphasizes its secondary role while in Honduras.
“We stress the fact that we’re sidekicks and not the heroes,” the senior anthropology major said. “When we go down there, we are constantly reiterating that the kids who are getting the education are the ones that are going to be making the change.”
For Kowalski, it was the relationships with students that really made a difference.
“I got particularly close to a girl named Scarlet who lived in Villa Soleada, and so one of my favorite things that I know that I always have to come back to is seeing her,” she said. “She can talk to me about anything, whether it’s whoever she’s currently crushing on, or what she wants to do with her life — and she wants to be a teacher.”
This university’s Alternative Breaks program offers a number of service trips, both in the United States and abroad, during winter, spring and summer breaks.
Shannon Kirby, an Alternative Breaks intern, said that the group trains its student leaders on building relationships with the communities they serve and cultural awareness, among other topics, in order to avoid falling into the “trap of voluntourism.”
“We talk about the importance of intention in our thoughts, words, and actions, and we acknowledge that it is vital to the mission and vision of our program for us to sit up and listen to criticisms of programs that are similar,” she said via email.
This university’s chapter of Humanity First, a U.S. volunteering organization, will travel to Haiti in January 2017 to work with students from a primary school in the village of Seguin.
The project began in the spring of 2015, when the club connected with Dr. Clayton Bell, who started the Bon Samaritan Primary School. In January, 13 Humanity First volunteers visited his school and taught a series of 12 lessons on topics ranging from water safety to gender equality.
“The whole purpose of it was to broaden their educational horizons,” Sadiq Asad, the club’s co-president, said.
After this trip, the group kept in touch with administrators from the Haitian school and identified the school’s greatest areas of need — basic school supplies and textbooks. They found that the textbooks the students needed most were in the subjects of water safety and plant life sciences. A group of 10 Humanity First members will bring 160 of these textbooks, as well as about 220 backpacks full of school supplies, to the school when they return in January of 2017.
“We are trying to make it a sustainable program so that our impact can be long-lasting,” Asad, a junior finance major, said. “That was the idea behind the textbooks … We buy these textbooks for the school, and then year after year as new students come in, as some graduate, these textbooks will always be available to them.”
The group decides which students can go on the trip through an application process, Asad and fellow co-president Nandan Vithlani said.
The co-presidents called the experience life-changing.
“You go in with this outside perspective thinking, we’re going to help this damaged country, and you just go there and you find out how wrong that is,” Vithlani, a junior finance major, said.
Asad said he valued a moment he shared with a Haitian student after a lesson he taught that featured a set of Legos.
“I was just stacking them like you would with Legos, and I saw one of the kids turn to me and his eyes just lit up,” Asad said. “We take things like that for granted — every kid knows how to play with Legos, that’s nothing to us. But just to see the creativity go off in his mind like that, that was one of my fondest memories.”