Orphanage volunteering: Jessica’s experience

By Jessica Piercy

A few days ago Jessica came across The Voluntourist documentary and was nice enough to share with us her experience orphanage volunteering in Cambodia and how watching the documentary made her think differently and stop her volunteering trip altogether. Thanks Jessica! 

“I had been traveling through Asia for the past couple of months and I was wanting to do something a bit different, something worthwhile and meaningful. A trip with a difference. I had the idea of volunteering in the back of my mind, it was just a matter or when, what and where.

I made a last minute decision to come to Cambodia for 3 weeks and worked out that I could fit in a week or two of volunteering, some sightseeing and a yoga retreat. It sounded perfect.

I did some research on volunteering in Cambodia and found there to be multiple orphanages in Siem Reap that needed help teaching English to children. You didn’t need any qualifications or specific skills, you just mainly needed to have fun with the kids and spend time with them.

I thought this was a wonderful opportunity to immerse myself in a different culture while giving back to a community that needed help.

I told a friend of mine my travel plans and immediately she warned me of the issues with volunteering in developing countries and how some orphanages are purely set up just to scam travellers. I took on board what she said but I had already booked my tickets and organised my stay at the orphanage. I was sure this orphanage was legitimate and that they had the best interest of the children in mind.

When I arrived the children were all so friendly and lovely and greeted me with such interest. However there was absolutely no structure, introduction or information on what was expected of the volunteers or what we had to do. It was the current volunteers who showed me the ropes and told me what was going on. The woman who ran the orphanage barely spoke to me and quite frankly seemed like she wasn’t even interested that I had arrived.

From the moment I got there it felt like I was expected to just take on a caretaker role to the children. There was also no structure to their curriculum so we were expected to just make up whatever we thought would be suitable for their English classes. It surprised me and I felt disheartened.

A couple of days into my time at the orphanage I happened to come across The Voluntourist documentary via my friend and it completely opened my eyes and made me think about the whole situation from a different perspective.

The way the documentary went into detail about the volunteering issue really opened my eyes to how much of a big business it is. When you choose to do volunteering it’s because you want to help, you want to give back to a community that’s less fortunate and your intentions are coming from a good place.

The way that volunteering is marketed to travelers makes you think that everything is done with the best interest of the children, local community or local organisation in mind. Not once do you actually consider that you might be doing more harm than good.

The part in the documentary where one of the girls from PEPY mentions that if you’re not qualified to teach in your home country then what makes you think you’re qualified to teach children in orphanages in a developing country?

That was probably the pinnacle point for me and sealed my decision to cut my time short and leave the orphanage only after 3 days.

What DID make me think that I was qualified to teach English to orphans in a developing country? I felt a bit foolish but also happy that this information was presented to me before I became too attached to the children and my time at the orphanage.

You don’t stop to consider that you might be causing emotional stress to these children such as separation anxiety as most volunteers will only stay 1-2 weeks. So the children have this continuous coming and going of teachers, which can’t be good for their emotional development or education.

You don’t stop to consider that you might be taking away possible jobs for a local who would be able to provide a stable presence and proper education for the children.

And you don’t stop to consider that even though your US$5 a day fee for food and accommodation may seem very small to you, it’s quite a lot of money for a local organisation and can have economical ramifications on these local communities.

Even though I cut my time short at the orphanage I wouldn’t call it a bad experience. It was The Voluntourist documentary that opened my eyes and helped me to see the situation from a different perspective and I feel a little more empowered for it. There are definitely still ways we can help the less fortunate but we need to educate ourselves first and do our research.”


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