Melissa's Travels

The Importance (and Privilege) of Voluntourism

The week after my family and I returned from our Indagare Voluntourism trip to Grenada, an article titled "The Voluntourist's Dilemma" appeared in The New York Times, taking a dim view of Americans traveling to volunteer. We had spent our spring break with another family on a Travel For Change trip designed by the non-profit organization Reach Within. Started by Indagare member Karen Lawson, who wanted to make a difference in the Caribbean island nation where her husband had been an ambassador, Reach Within focuses on improving the quality of life in shelters (or care homes) on the island. Our group (which included my husband, our fifteen-year-old son and a friend of his, and Alexandra Knight and her family from Houston, including their two boys, aged 10 and 8) visited care homes and learned about the issues facing the disabled and the orphans who inhabit them. One of Reach’s board members, Vincent Aloi, from New York, and Reach’s youth program director, Grenadian Jerry Bascombe, accompanied us.

On our first day, at a home for the disabled, we spent a morning at a therapeutic drumming session. “We tried yoga and other activities that everyone could do together, but something about the drumming was magic,” Vincent explained. “Everyone could express themselves individually and yet be as one.” We cradled large leather-topped drums between our knees and followed Jerry and the drum maker to set the beat as the residents—with tambourines and drums or even just the clapping of their hands, stomping of their feet or rocking of their bodies—joined in. For an hour, we played and sang songs, connected by rhythm and joy.

We spent the following days at the children’s care homes, where actual and “social” orphans (children whose parents are not fit to care for them) live until they are eighteen. They showed us their rooms, we did art projects, played soccer, taught them handball and sat and talked. We brought no special skill to these afternoons (not even doing manual labor, as my daughter and I had done in Nicaragua when we delivered clean water sources). But as the children kicked the balls with the boys and prattled on to us as we sat outside, it certainly felt like nourishment of souls was occurring all around.

Among the arguments that The New York Times reporter made were that voluntourists take jobs away from locals, don’t understand the complexity of local issues and could have a bigger impact by spending the travel dollars on direct giving. “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," he wrote.

When I shared The New York Times article with the Knight family, Alexandra sent me a long email response, which read in part, “Perhaps [the writer] does not realize that half the reason why people volunteer to help others is because it makes them feel good. It connects us to humanity and gets us out of our insular world, which is rapidly being overcome with fear and hate. Developing empathy and compassion in others is just as important as traditional education." Later, she continued, “Experiencing these trips rooted in giving back and mindful traveling allows us a behind-the-scenes look at a country. It allows us a glimpse into other cultures and introduces us to communities of people with whom we share more similarities than we’d expect, like struggle, compassion, suffering, hope and love. These emotions come in all shapes and sizes, and the more we witness them in others, the less alone, isolated or fearful we feel.”

A week after reading the article, I spoke at a design conference in Lisbon where one of the other speakers was Brian Mulraney, the founder of Smile Train, arguably one of the world’s most successful non-profits. Like Reach Within, Smile Train works with locals to effect change. Mulraney founded Smile Train after realizing that empowering local doctors to perform cleft palate surgeries would be more effective than sending volunteer doctors around the world. In 17 years, with this model and his highly effective fund raising, the organization has been able to perform more than one million surgeries. (His latest non-profit venture Wonder Works is taking a similar approach to tackle blindness and burn injuries.)

We spoke about how a voluntourism trip had inspired him to found his non-profits. This summer his teenage daughter will be working in a hospital in India. She doesn’t have a medical skill but her father, like me, believes in the value of showing our children the world’s complexity and encouraging their empathy. After all, if they don’t see the problems first-hand, how will they be inspired to solve them? Reflecting on her childrens’ incredible experiences in Granada, Alexandra wrote, “I learned a lesson that I cannot micro-manage my childrens’ emotions. Instead, I must surrender to who they truly are and have confidence in their decisions and choices and honor them. We are all human with hearts and we are all teachers and students of life.”

While we were in Grenada, we came up with a new concept after visiting the homes and discussing issues with the Reach Within leaders. This program, called Bridges will be a paid internship for local kids aging out of their homes. When they turn 18, they will be “employed” by Reach Within and paid a living wage to spend 6 to 8 months working with Jerry at the care and special needs homes, as well as aiding the increasing elderly population of Grenada. This will give them enough money to get on their feet, find a safe place to live and get work experience under their belts so that they will be more hireable. This extra help will also support the full-time Reach Within staff to ensure that they do not burn out.

I love this initiative: what better way to inspire and give hope to those older teenage children who dread their 18th birthday because at that milestone they will be forced out of the only home they know, than seeing a graduate of Reach who has found successful independence in the world?

In her email, Alexandra summed it up best: “We are encouraging our children to keep their eyes open when poverty, misfortune and tragic circumstances are presented and to lead with their hearts. Too many people can take the path of pity and that does not help anyone. I hope we can encourage a generation of children to show compassion and take interest in things outside of their comfort zone, which in turn, will serve humanity. This is not an overnight transformation but a slow process in the right direction.”

So yes, we need to be mindful about the kind of voluntouring that we do, but I believe that engaging with the world and using our trips to seek out beauty, but also complexity and difficulty, is not just a privilege of travel but an opportunity for the best kind of change in us and in the world.

Published onApril 26, 2016

More Inspiration

Plan Your Trip With Us

We only feature hotels that we can vouch for first-hand. At many of them, Indagare members receive special amenities.

Get In Touch
Indagare employees walking up stiars

Enjoy 30 Days On Us!

Start your Self Planner
membership trial today.

Unlock access to 2,000+ first-hand hotel reviews, 300+ Destination Guides and the most up-to-date travel news and inspiration.

Already a member?

Welcome back,
log in to Indagare

Not a member?

Forgot Password

Enter your email and we’ll send you a link to reset your password.

Type the first 3 letters to begin