When Helping Makes It Worse

The other day I heard this NPR story about the new trend in “voluntourism,” in which folks combine vacation with mission by traveling to other countries and volunteering in orphanages in Asia and Africa. The story centered around one particular orphanage in South Africa.

“We’re here to try and give them good memories for the rest of their lives,” according to one volunteer. The foreigners play with the kids, help with homework, maybe even provide medical support, if they have that kind of training. But the steady stream of strangers coming and going can be harmful for kids who have trouble building attachments. The constant abandonment can be detrimental to their ability to form deep relationships. An emotional callus forms.

These voluntourists provide unmistakable benefits to the orphanage, including much-needed support and yes, additional funds. The murkier question is whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

(As an aside, I also have to say that while I genuinely think that folks’ hearts are in the right place—and travel and mission work can be so helpful to provide us with a broader perspective of the world—there are at-risk kids in every neighborhood in America that need to be played with and read to.)

I wonder where congregations fit into this. I can’t count the number of churches I know who do mission work that includes working with orphans and children’s homes. The best partnerships are ongoing and deeply relational. The church gets to know the staff and kids and are there to learn nad serve. Some of these partnerships have gone on for decades. Maybe it’s not the exact same group of people coming from the church every year, but some folks do come year after year, so there is a consistency that might mitigate the abandonment dynamic.

Certainly the church is not immune from the dangers highlighted in the article. The potential is there for a drive-by dynamic that makes the volunteer feel good and useful but that doesn’t honor the dignity of the other. But I think that congregations who have formed good and healthy partnerships could be a resource in this discussion.

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10 thoughts on “When Helping Makes It Worse

  1. Lee says:

    I struggle with this, too, especially because I know so many people who have had life-changing experiences on mission trips, when they were exposed to situations or parts of the world they didn’t know existed. But of course, it’s exploitative to go “help” someone just for the experience.

    There was a Christian Century article sometime last spring about the downsides of mission trips, (citing not only the problems you mention, but also the ecological toll on all that travel) which seemed to simply advocate not going at all. I think there’s got to be some middle ground.

    You’re probably right that partnerships are key; I do know of a church that has developed a long 20+ year relationship with a church in Central America. They have taken several trips there, and invited them to come to the United States. That kind of ongoing relationship makes a whole lot more sense than mission trips that are just tourism in disguise.

    How you do that, however, is another question entirely. It’s a lot easier to plan a week-long trip than a generation-long relationship.

  2. Rachel Heslin says:

    When I was at UCLA working towards my BA in social psychology, the major project for one of my classes was to volunteer to mentor an at-risk child for the quarter. I refused, going so far as to take it to the department head in protest. There is no way that I would bond with a child, tell them how wonderful they were and how special they were to me, then, 10 weeks later, say, “Guess what! You’re just a course requirement! See ya!”

    I was given a term paper instead.

    That’s one of the reasons that I’ve chosen to be the data person at my job, rather than working with the children directly. I know that it can take a significant commitment to have an effect on a child’s life, and I don’t know that I have it in me to follow through as much as would be needed.

    • MaryAnn says:

      Rachel, I was actually thinking about you a lot in this post, specifically your comments on the starfish story and subject/object matters. Thanks for commenting.

      Certainly you would agree that there is a place for short-term relationships with boundaries around them? Kids have teachers for a year, then that relationship ends as such–that is an accepted part of childhood, at least in most schools. I am pastor of the church I serve, which means being the pastor for the children who attend there. But I will not be the pastor there forever–someday it will be my time to leave, and chances are my departure will not coincide with the kids’ needs’ being tied up neatly. Hopefully whoever replaces me would be able to pick up the mantle but it’s not a guarantee.

      But as you say, how to be involved with the lives of children, especially at-risk children, is a huge question, especially when the term is over, the kid still has needs, and there’s not necessarily a new mentor waiting in the wings.

      P.S. Since you noted it in another comment, I edited your original comment to correct your typo. I don’t normally mess with people’s words but thought in this case it would be OK 🙂

      • Rachel Heslin says:

        There is definitely a spectrum of interaction and assistance. Right now, I’m volunteering 6 hours a week at my son’s school (2 in his class and another 4 in a different class), which is something I don’t think I would have been capable of doing a couple of years ago because of my fear of over-committing. Now, one of my greatest pleasures is working with a child who is struggling and suddenly seeing his or her face light up when he/she “gets it.” I love identifying a child’s specific learning and communication style so I can connect and convey. It is so very rewarding.

        Yet I also know that one of the reasons I can do this is because there are understood boundaries. I don’t know if I’d make a good teacher, because so much for me is about the one-on-one. Sometimes I’ll see a kid who needs more than I can give, and I’ll refer them to our Family Advisor because my role *does* have those boundaries: I am here to provide support for the teachers and help children learn the material.

        Something I tell new Family Advisors is: you can’t help everyone, and even those you can help, you may not be able to heal by yourself. And that’s okay. For myself, as I have learned to become more present in my life, it has become easier for me to see how I, in that moment, can help touch a life without expectations of specific outcome.

        Huh. As I typed that last sentence, I realized that it held the seeds of a far deeper truth than I had intended. Because isn’t the expectation of a specific outcome something that can mess us up? I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have goals, but, especially when working with other human beings, if we have *too* strict a picture of what our actions “should” accomplish, then not only do we set ourselves up for unwarranted disappointment if things don’t happen exactly that way, but we close part of ourselves off to both the awareness of what gift a specific moment may call for and, more importantly, to the dynamic humanity of those whose lives we hope to touch. For me, it takes a strong, conscious act of faith to trust that I don’t need to orchestrate outcomes.

        Of course, as I’ve mentioned, I’m a total P, so of course I’d be more interested in the process. I’d be interested how you, being more intrinsically goal-oriented than I, might interpret this observation/analysis.

        PS. Thank you both for the typo correction and comment about my commenting; I sometimes feel self-conscious about inadvertently taking over someone else’s blog!

  3. Jan Lorah says:

    “Voluntourism” — what a great word. Though I have been one of those who traveled to Africa multiple times to work w/ the folks there, as did my daughter, I have grave concerns about the lasting effect of that which is gained from the visit. Wholeheartedly I can say that my daughter and I certainly grew from the experience, attributing some rather interesting facets to the journey of our lives — but in my heart I have questions: are we creating a dependency that would never have existed had these folks w/ whom we’ve worked never been exposed to that which we offered — both tangibly and emotionally? Of course this argument can be stretched to cover many of experiences in life, but I think maybe it is more intense when the needs are so great. Working at a soup kitchen in DC “fed” me emotionally in more ways than it ever provided for the physical sustenance of those homeless folks who stopped by for a warm meal — and in light of that which I said about Africa: is this, too, creating a dependency? Sending money, in lieu of going in person, is certainly an option: But it does very little to build relationships. There must be a happy medium someplace. I don’t have the answer, just an opinion based on experience.

  4. Lacy says:

    I really appreciated reading your thoughts as this article has been heavy on my mind the last couple of days. I actually just wrote a blog about it too, you can check it out at blog.volunteercard.com – would love to hear your thoughts.

    I think you are right in saying “The best partnerships are ongoing and deeply relational.” I too have been involved in church groups in the past who visited the same place year after year, having the ability to develop some great relationships. I also agree with Jan Lorah’s comment above…we have to find some sort of a happy medium. I think it is good star that we are simply asking the questions.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.
    Lacy

  5. Rachel Heslin says:

    Another thought, specifically in response to ongoing interactions, whether individually or as a congregation: is it part of your life and who you are, or is it just something you do?

  6. Chris Fulmer says:

    I have volunteered twice — once in Africa and once in China for a total of almost 2 months. I think it is important to investigate the non-profit organization and its philosophy. Definitely I would seriously question any group who is providing the primary care for children. This was not my experience through Cross-Cultural Solutions. Although I worked with college-age students and adults, many of the other voluteers worked with children. In none of these situations were they the primary care-givers. They were the enrichment to the established programs. They were the extra pair of hands and arms (to hug). They were sources of information and knowledge.
    Cross-Cultural Solutions has a VERY STRICT policy on giving so as to not harm the local culture. We were closely monitored. All voluntourism organizations should have a good understanding of the benefit and harm that international volunteers can cause.

  7. sko3 says:

    Well, I have a perspective on this.
    Wait, no, I have two perspectives.

    First perspective: college chaplaincies where mission and service trips were absolutely the highlight of my experiences there (for me and for the students). In those trips (I did as many as 8 a year in one job), I was very careful to be clear that these trips were not about changing or even significantly helping the places where we were going. They were about changing US. Real change comes in long-term situations. The trips provide the vehicle through which we could imagine that kind of change. All of my trips were domestic, but there was still a tendency– perhaps age-based, perhaps not–to want to be rescuers, or to be seen as heroic. And a big piece of the trip experience was to put that into perspective. One of my proudest moments (because it’s really all about me, right?) as a chaplain was watching my students start a particular program for folks experiencing homelessness in OUR town, as a result of having experienced it on a mission trip elsewhere. I remember well the conversation that was the turning point, where students were discussing the humanity they found in the individuals experiencing homelessness in DC–when one member challenged the group on how they interacted with the folks experiencing homelessness in our town.

    Here’s my other perspective: my daughter lived in one of those African orphanages. My daughter experienced a never-ending flow of Americans who would come in, pass out candy and stickers, teach them a Jesus song, give hugs and play soccer and leave. Her particular orphanage didn’t allow for more than that in terms of short-term volunteers. (There were long-term volunteers that were there for 2 or 3 months that volunteered every day, all day). I HATE that I can still find pictures of my daughter on the web taken by candy and sticker “volunteers” who were there as poverty voyeurs. I HATE that even though she’s a happy joyful kid, all the pictures I see of her and her little friends made them look miserable. But………without these candy and sticker volunteers, that orphanage wouldn’t have had antibiotics, or vitamins, or underwear. They wouldn’t have had groups that sort through the donations to make them usable for harried staff. They wouldn’t have had groups that did painting and other big group projects that just wouldn’t have been done. I get it. It’s so complex. There’s this exchange and I know the volunteer groups benefitted and I know the orphanage benefitted. I think, though, that hte children were the currency.

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