The Positive Effects of Volunteering

Articles from Philippines Tacloban City, Philippines | Apr 07, 2011

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  It is an age old debate: ‘should you have to pay to volunteer?’ and the recent media frenzy surrounding unethical and underhand volunteering projects has thrown this subject back in to question once again.  

It is an age old debate: ‘should you have to pay to volunteer?’ and the recent media frenzy surrounding unethical and underhand volunteering projects has thrown this subject back in to question once again. With experts from left, right and centre offering up their own opinions on how local communities are being exploited by “Voluntourists” who are seemingly happy to throw money into volunteering as a means to improve their CV, genuine volunteer projects are under threat of being sidelined by a few projects that, although sad to admit, do exist. I wanted to try and unpick the idea of paying to volunteer a little more, through my experiences, especially as a female traveller during my visits to the Philippines both in 2006 and today, in 2010.


My first visit was to work in a government run orphanage in Tacloban City, Leyte for 5 weeks in 2006 and yes, I paid a fee to volunteer. My arrival was marred by my relatively unexpected arrival, the lack of a local home stay (the homes where they normally place volunteers were all full) and the fact that my project leader at the orphanage was away for the first week, so my start was delayed. All these factors, coupled with a bout of culture shock, meant that I was in a vulnerable position and needed the support from local coordinators on the ground. I had this, both in the form of my home stay mother (we call them Nanay) and my coordinator at the volunteer centre. The project fee that I paid before travelling to the Philippines covered this cost and meant that when I finally did start my project at the orphanage, the staff there weren’t having an additional burden of my cultural shock with my need for extra care and attention and it meant that in the 4-5 hours a day that I spent with these tiny children, I was being beneficial to the team at the centre. Throughout my time at the orphanage, there were only 2 care workers often working 12-20 hour shifts each. While I was there I could relieve some of that burden, get on with some of the more time consuming tasks like feeding, cleaning and playing with the children to give them more stimulation – the stimulation which, during those 4 weeks, certainly doubled in time for the children.


The subject of Voluntourism is a tricky one – in a sense it explains the combination of volunteering and using your spare time to travel, but I must point out that personally, I feel the real genuine projects out there aren’t about ‘tourism’ or constructing a project purely to capture the volunteers hard earned cash. It is about going off the beaten track, away from the tourist trail and right into the heart of a culture and a community. By doing this, yes it may make it harder to acclimatize in the beginning, but this is not to put you off – this is why the volunteer coordinators and the home stay arrangements are all the more valued.


And so to the home stay, ladies and gents out there – don’t panic! This is the one element that should be welcomed with open arms. Don’t feel apprehensive about it, as many seem to feel before heading to their project. My first volunteer experience was fantastic, I ended up staying with the local coordinators sister – Jan, who wouldn’t normally accept volunteers, but as I had nowhere else to go, she too welcomed me in to her home. It was Jan’s mum whom I called Nanay, who cooked for me every morning and evening, but it was Jan who was my rock when I first arrived. She taught me the do’s and the don’ts and took me in as one of her family. 4 years later and I’m back in the Philippines, this time to work for Kaya Responsible Travel and while I went about finding my own apartment I was put up (this time) in a home stay in Bliss – where the usual volunteers stay. My Nanay there was called Solli and she’s the warmest and most caring woman. On my last night before moving in to my own apartment she said: “When you are in my house, you are like my daughter, my son, my family. When you are here I look after you. When you are happy, I am happy,” and this is true to the bone. Although I did not remember her, she remembered my face walking around the centre 4 years ago – the time she first started accepting volunteers. In the years since, she has welcomed in over 66 volunteers and she receives an income (taken from the volunteer’s project fee) for each one of them. Prior to becoming a home stay, she had no extra means of income apart from selling rice at the local market sporadically, and she has 2 sons, a husband and a grandson still living at home (not to mention the other 4 children and 20 or so other grandchildren that she has) to provide for. Becoming a home stay has given her life more importance; she has pictures of every one of her volunteers on the table in the living room, she takes all of them to the airport when they leave and more often than not, they both shed a tear! She still even receives birthday and Christmas cards from her first ever volunteer. For a lone female traveller, this is what helps to get you through the first week – the tales, the attention and the solace away from the hustling and bustling streets outside.


I have since met up with my first home stay – Jan, and her mum still remembers me and wants to cook for me again so I’ll be paying her a visit soon. For all of this, there may be some projects out there who are working for the wrong causes but for every one of them, there are hundreds that are not. I’m not saying you have to pay thousands to volunteer for a few weeks, but don’t discount paying for a volunteering trip as you can see just from my account above just how much that money means to the local communities.


Volunteering should be initially seen less as concerning the visual and kinaesthetic elements of a place and more about the emotional and physical development of both the volunteer and those that they are helping on the ground. I suppose the ultimate goal, along with developing infrastructures, working to increase productivity and spurring on local progress; we are about increasing the level of impassioned and educated individuals in the world. Surely this can’t be a bad thing.  

Tags: Volunteer , pay , homestay , Philippines , orphanage , jeepney , tacloban , family

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