Some kids just don’t care that you’re volunteering
Put yourself in a child’s shoes for a minute. If you’ve dealt with a lot of hardship in your short life – whether it’s abusive parents, a lack of schooling, or abject poverty – there’s a strong likelihood that you’re not going to be concerned with the smiling foreigner attempting to hug you constantly for a mere month of your life.
Sure, it’s great to have a new human climbing frame for a while – and a foreign visitor is obviously interesting, particularly if they’re more lenient than the people who usually look after you – but ultimately it doesn’t make much difference to you.
On my gap year, when travelling through Eastern Europe, I arrived at a collection of ramshackle buildings near the city of Kaunas, Lithuania, eager and willing to work at a kid’s summer camp for two weeks. What I hadn’t been informed about before arriving was that this specific group of children, from the ages of five to fifteen, all came from care homes because their parents were either abusive, neglectful, overly poor or generally unable to take care of them.
What followed were two chaotic weeks of avoiding being bitten and hit by the younger kids; attempting to break up fights between the teenagers; and trying to explain to completely unconcerned ten year olds that smoking a pack of stolen cigarettes in the bushes was just plain wrong. The rest of the time I spent wandering aimlessly around the camp grounds because none of the kids were at all concerned with me being there.
It’s slightly undermining when you realise that the children you’re there to help couldn’t care less about you. Feeling under appreciated by a group of teenage Lithuanians shouldn’t have got to me, but it did! What was even more worrying, though, was how unconcerned the Lithuanians in charge were, too. Despite my constant pleading that ten year olds shouldn’t be smoking, not to mention stealing said cigarettes from other kids, they didn’t seem to be worried in the slightest.
Which is when you have to start addressing just how little you know about the culture you’ve suddenly landed yourself in.
Volunteering from a moral standpoint – do you really know best?
When volunteering abroad you have an obligation, as a tourist and a foreigner, to accept that things work differently in different places. Even if you perceive a situation as being problematic or dangerous, it’s up to the locals you’re working with to let you know if you’re right or not.
It’s not all sunshine and light working with children, however much the volunteer companies paint it to be. Sometimes the issues faced by the kids in your care are so upsetting, and so alien to your normal life that you could be faced with an situation you simply don’t know how to handle.
Because your heart often ends up overruling your head.
Child labour or helping out mum?
Take the mystery of my missing money when volunteering at an orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal, for example. After a week of small denomination notes and handfuls of coins vanishing, I eventually realised I wasn’t going mad and one of the children was stealing from me. After talking to my volunteer coordinator, he instructed me to set a trap with a specific amount of money, a loose padlock and a half-hour time frame. Successfully catching the boy in the act, he was made to apologise and give me some of the money back.
But it was only after the eight year old culprit was caught stealing much larger amounts of money from a second volunteer that things really kicked off. He’d been giving everything to a friend of his at school who’d told him to“rob the rich foreigners when they’re asleep and we can buy video games”.
And when over a hundred US dollars had vanished, never to return, this little boy was sent back to his abusive father in the Kathmandu Valley, with no telling whether he’d be safe.
The only thing we could be sure about was that he’d lost his chance at a good education, and it was a direct result of me making a fuss about the theft. Something I felt morally obliged to do, as I could envisage the trajectory of his life; moving from petty theft to muggings to potential prison time.
What I could never have foreseen was his banishment from Kathmandu and the better life he’d been offered for just a few years.
I always think about Ramesh, and what happened to him when I left Nepal. Knowing that I was part of such a fundamental change to his life is an awful feeling; but I have to trust that the right decision was made, even if I think otherwise.
Dealing with things like this are what make volunteering not for the faint of heart. While the vast majority of placements will be great, and fun, and happy, there’s always the possibility for darker situations to arise – which is normally why there’s a volunteer program available to start with.
This is why it’s so important to quiz the people who organise a volunteer project; who are the children I’ll be working with? What’s their background? How and why is my appearance as a volunteer going to benefit them, really?
In my experience, it feels like a lot of volunteer companies seem more concerned about the welfare of you as a volunteer than of the children themselves. You’re also likely, as said volunteer, to only get the briefest of insights into how children are cared for and what difficulties they face. This is often because most volunteers don’t go through any kind of training before going abroad – meaning it’s likely that the places they work at don’t require much specific experience.
Thus the more difficult places, the ones with kids in real trouble, are essentially left for trained professionals to deal with.
Unless you come across it accidentally, of course – like a friend of mine in Ecuador, who was suddenly faced with a nightmarish situation at his teaching placement. He was working at a small village school in a farming community when a seven year old boy came to class crying. Pushed for a reason to explain his tears, he revealed he had been raped by his older brother.
When my friend questioned an Ecuadorian teacher about the situation, she sadly told him it’s something they don’t know how to prevent – because to compound the issue, this boy’s older brother had also been raped by another adult. Eventually my friend had no choice but to leave the placement; after time spent pleading with various officials he realized that, as a young, foreign volunteer, he simply had no way to change the situation.
How would you have behaved if this had happened to you? I know I would’ve felt lost, frustrated, and suddenly very scared for the welfare of these overly vulnerable children. Realizing that these kinds of situations exist, however, and noting their apparent insurmountability, is what makes your resolve stronger; the need to make things known, to work towards a wider understanding and towards eventual change.