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Right and wrong ways to do ‘voluntourism’

While vacation travelers and missionaries may be tempted to add an orphanage stop to itineraries, showing needy children empathy requires discretion

For various reasons, millions of children worldwide – some of whom are true orphans – are cared for institutionally. While vacation travelers and missionaries may be tempted to add an orphanage stop to itineraries, showing needy children empathy requires discretion.

Hopeandhome.org describes “orphanage tourism,” part of what is referred to as so-called voluntourism, as children in orphanages exploited as “attractions” for tourists and “projects” for volunteers.

Dorothy Pearce of Jacksonville, Florida, took a 12-year hiatus from her work as a paralegal to direct a home for special-needs children in Haiti. She recalls unannounced visitors walking through, taking photographs, then leaving.

“The practice of orphanage tourism for photo ops is appalling … especially if people pay a tourism group to visit orphanages,” she said.

While children’s homes need support, there are right ways to aid children and staff, says Pearce:
– Make contact well in advance of the visit, and learn the facility’s wants and needs.
– Collect specifically requested items to donate: diapers, bottles, clothes, medicine, etc.
– Offer specialized skills and services: physical therapy, medical training, teaching, dental work, cleaning, construction, etc.
– Bring approved activities such as games, coloring books, face painting. Know cultural idiosyncrasies; for example, certain cartoon images might be misunderstood.
– Spend time establishing connections.
– Plan to do something nice for the staff, such as a goodie bag or food basket.

“Treat them like people and realize they have a hard job,” said Pearce. “Don’t just give them something like a toothbrush, but something that makes them feel special.”

After the visit, continue the connection by supporting the home through a sponsorship program or monthly or annual giving. Write to children, send photos and gifts (if appropriate and allowed), and convey care and commitment, said Hal Nungester, co-director of H.I.S. Home for Children in Haiti.

“I loved it when people discovered how some children in various parts of the world live,” said Pearce, “but then they decided they wanted to make a difference for the children they met. Don’t just walk in and pat children on the head. That’s horrible!”

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