Isn’t my good heart & desire enough to help abroad?

graphic by Jayne Cravens representing volunteersAn email below that I got recently, which I’ve edited here for brevity and to protect everyone’s identity:

My daughter is 16, and she has saved her money to travel and volunteer.  She is partial to working with animals/conservation and/or children.  We have looked at a ridiculous number of programs, but we haven’t decided on any particular one.  She hasn’t traveled alone before, and she is sheltered, but she is completely consumed by the idea of traveling and volunteering.  I have discussed various tricky situations that she might encounter, but I don’t want to scare her away from an opportunity to learn and grow.  So many programs seem so helpful on the surface – like volunteering at orphanages or helping the elephants in Thailand – but there really can be a” dark underbelly” to many of these programs. I am just curious if you know of any reputable organizations that offer travel/volunteer trips for teens (even the sheltered ones). One program says its an elephant camp but it seems more like a theme park than a sanctuary. What advice would you give to a 16-year-old girl who wants to travel and “help and do something important”?  We are looking into local volunteer opportunities as well – she has volunteered at a local humane society, a non-profit movie theater, and done yard work/clean-up for a local YMCA camp.

Here’s what I wrote in response (also edited for my blog):

I’m going to be blunt, even harsh, and I am probably going to hurt your daughter’s feelings:

There are no reputable organizations serving children or animals abroad that need a 16-year-old from the USA. None. The programs she finds that say she will be able to help animals or children are going to be just what you said: “more like a theme park than a sanctuary.” Legitimate organizations serving children or animals in developing countries do not need 16 year olds – legitimate organizations serving children need certified and experienced teachers, school administrators, child psychologists, child nutritionists, etc., that speak the local language. Legitimate organizations serving animals need people with degrees and experience in wildlife biology and environments.

Many of pay-to-volunteer programs that say they help animals, such as elephants, capture animals specifically so they can make money from Westerners willing to pay big bucks for their feel good experience (and photos with the elephants they are “helping”.)

I’m assuming you’ve seen this: Reality Check: Volunteering Abroad / Internationally? This web page has the only pay-to-volunteer programs I’m willing to endorse.

If your daughter isn’t willing to use the next 6-10 years volunteering and working locally to get the experience she needs to work and volunteer abroad, and studying at least one other language in that time, then I recommend she forget trying to volunteer abroad and, instead, simply travel abroad and see some lovely sights, meet local people, maybe take some language classes, etc. But forget trying to help people while she’s traveling. Legitimate orphanages will NOT let her visit – just as in the USA, a foster home would never allow people to “come see the orphans”, this is the same policy for legitimate orphanages abroad. Sanctuaries that truly care about animals won’t let her interact with the animals either – while not in a developing country, the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee is a great example of this – people can volunteer on the site, but they are kept away from the elephants! That’s as it should be.

So, with all that said, if I were in your daughter’s place, what would *I* do, right now? These are all things I didn’t do, but wish I had, adapted somewhat for your daughter:

  • I would create a local project for a cause or community I believed in. I would learn just what it takes to create something that helps others, recruit people to help with it, lead it, overcome challenges, adapt plans, etc. And successful completion of a project would look great on my applications for university – and, eventually, the PeaceCorps – some day. I wrote this page of leadership volunteer project suggestions for Girl Scouts looking for ideas for their Gold Awards, but almost of any of them could be undertaken by anyone. Lots are animal-related, because, when I was young, that’s what I cared about (and still do).
  • I would do everything I could to learn a second language. I half-heartedly took Spanish classes in high school. I didn’t seriously try to learn Spanish until I was 35. If I’d really applied myself earlier – or taken French instead – I would be oh-so-much farther in my career now – I could have started this path so much earlier and there would be a massive amount of jobs I would now be qualified for that I’m not now.
  • I would have tried to do more locally what I dreamed of doing internationally. Your daughter has the Internet – she can use VolunteerMatch or Guidestar to find most of the nonprofits in your area. Forget whether or not they are looking for volunteers – look at the mission of these organizations. I would look for organizations that do the kind of work locally I want to do internationally, look at their web sites thoroughly, and then call or visit each – me, not my Mom – and ask if I could volunteer, and I would have an idea of what I wanted to do as a volunteer. So, if I wanted to help children, I would look for programs that mentor or tutor young people, and if I wasn’t old enough to be a mentor or tutor myself, I’d volunteer in the office just to see how things worked. Right here where I live now, in a small town in Oregon, there is a group, Adelante Mujeres, that is doing work locally that is exactly the same kind of work done by the United Nations overseas. If I wanted to help animals, I’d contact humane societies and animal rescue groups – the ideas I have about helping animals on that aforementioned “gold award” page represent all of the things I now wish I’d try to do when I was a teen to help animals.
  • I would research the three AmeriCorps programs – AmeriCorps State and National, AmeriCorps NCCC, and AmeriCorps VISTA – and I’d orientate myself into getting into one of them eventually, maybe even delaying college for a year to do one of the programs. NCCC takes people as young as 18 for their environmental projects – but you need to apply months in advance. There’s also this AmeriCorps summer program, which also accepts 18 year olds. Doing these programs greatly prepares you for eventually joining PeaceCorps, VSO, etc.

So, that’s my advice. If your daughter would like to talk further, she’s welcomed to email me.

A few things I didn’t write:

  • I’m a researcher and trainer regarding volunteer engagement. I’m also a humanitarian aid worker. Those two fields often clash when I get inquiries like this and, when they do, I almost always defer to the latter. For me, volunteering internationally should ALWAYS be about what local people and environments need and want, and that’s expertise from abroad, not young inexperienced people with a good heart. Hence why I can sound so harsh on this subject.
  • I have to admit I loathe emails from parents looking for volunteering opportunities for their children if those children are 16 or over. If your child wants to volunteer, without a parent, entirely on his or her own, that child should be able to write me directly and ask for advice him or herself. I’ve even had parents writing me for their children that are in their 20s, desperately needing community service hours for a drunk driving conviction. If your child can’t write me him or herself, he or she isn’t ready to volunteer without you right there onsite as well.
  • I’m a meanie.
  • I really do hope she takes my advice.

What got me into trouble with this young idealist was this web page of mine: transire benefaciendo: “to travel along while doing good”.

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