Do right by the world: don’t get voluntourism wrong.


I’ve had a relationship with children—now young adults—at an orphanage in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for the past decade. I met them on my first visit to the country through my friend and business partner, Alex Talavera, who volunteered regularly at the children’s home.

What began with small monthly donations to support a budget that didn’t include line items for things like milk grew into a project to end the poverty cycle by giving some of them an education beyond high school. Today, one young woman is halfway to becoming a veterinarian. Another is in her second semester as a university student in broadcast technology. And two more are in the wings as they approach their final year of high school.

They call me Tía—Aunt. I call them my girls. But I’m still shaken occasionally by the memory of how they bid me farewell at the end of my first trip to Bolivia.

I’d arrived for my first visit with art supplies and sweets—a Ring Pop and M&M Minis pack for each child—and returned on subsequent days with items checked off a list of necessities like school supplies and food staples. We’d played in the yard and had fun together, but they weren’t free to just enjoy that as children should. They’d been taught that they were responsible for ensuring that the support continued.

As that last visit drew to a close in 2006, 35 children stood single file, approached me one by one, shook my hand, and said, “Gracias por su apoyo.”

Thank you for your support.

Not one was older than 12. And except for the babies and toddlers, all had already been trained to engage in donor relations.

My connection to these young people has become one of the most important of my life. Given this history, I understand the urge, when traveling in a country where poverty is overwhelming, to do something to help. To take one day away from the beaches, mountains, or historic sites and help someone who, no doubt about it, needs the assistance.

In the best case scenario, a school gets painted, or a garden is planted, or a garbage-strewn stretch of land is cleaned up. But in the worst case scenario, children become part of a vacation itinerary and are obliged to offer thanks to strangers who are already looking ahead to the next life experience. And in those cases, everyone emerges poorer in one way or another.

If you want to do something positive in the communities you visit, make sure you do it in a positive way. Look for programs that let you make a more lasting commitment to causes that matter to you and the people whose lives you enter. That urge to help is powerful. It’s the best of what makes us human. And for that reason, it’s something that merits more than a brief encounter with people who will have new voluntourists to thank tomorrow or next week. Your impact will be greater, and the experience will be more meaningful for everyone.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *