A plethora of recently published articles have panned “voluntourism” as little more than salve for bleeding-heart rich folks (here’s one example, and another). The problem is, it’s rarely that simple.

Most volunteers want to do good, but whether or not “good” results from their efforts is up for debate. In fact, the scale can be tipped by so many factors that committing to a trip can feel like a shot in the dark.

No matter the intention of the traveler, the tour organizer, or the people on the other end, the intersection of one human being with another always has an effect.

Our cultures, experiences, and personalities — good, bad, and ugly — bump up against each other in the coffee shop and on the playground when we’re at home, and the same is true when we travel.

I’ve found that the farther you are from home (and the shared point of view that comes with it), the less certain you can be of what effect you’ll have.

Recently I was in Kenya on assignment with Free the Children. Before leaving home I asked if there was anything I could do to help the kids I’d be encountering. Were they in need of something that I could supply? Pencils, books, clothes?

They said there wasn’t. The purpose of this trip, the organizers said, was to see and meet, not to hand out gifts or solve problems. They wanted me to come home and sit with the experience — to give it the time it deserved to be digested and absorbed — and then to consider helping from home.

So off I went to Kenya, empty handed.

After interviewing a group of girls about how a new all-female secondary school in their rural Kenyan community would impact their lives, I was approached by a second group of girls (ages 14-17) who aspired to be journalists. That’s when the lightbulb moment came.

These were kids who, only a few years earlier, had struggled to find food and shoes. Now, thanks to educational opportunities and a host of alternative-income projects in the region, they were standing before me impeccably dressed in their black, red, and gold school colors daring to dream of a future career.

They peppered me with questions about everything from how I balance family and work and what it was like to be a “real” writer to how they could find mentors themselves. I fell in love with their ambition and promise. About an hour later when other obligations forced us apart I was overcome with emotion.

Here they were thanking me profusely for being “helpful and inspiring” and presenting me with a gift from their school, when the truth is the benefits had been mutual and the privilege had really been mine.

In my conversations with them I found my hope for the country gaining momentum. I was inspired again. These girls, who could so easily give up on a world that seems, at times, to have forgotten their humanity, weren’t apathetic or jaded or defeated. They were focused on the brightness the future held in store and enthusiastically making their way.

In that moment I wanted to offer them everything they were working so hard for — opportunity, equality, stellar careers.

Instead I gave them what I hope were tangible bits of information that they can use to further their dreams… and my business card with the promise that I’d help them if I could.

In the year my family and I spent traveling around the world, I constantly wished I could do more. I wanted to paint a wall, build a school, lend a hand.

Especially in Africa, where volunteer efforts always seemed to fall short of fruition, I’d been torn apart to the point of tears with a desire to “do something.”

But this trip to Kenya taught me that it isn’t about the number of bricks you lift or the amount of spoons you fill. It’s about the interactions you have.

Some people who volunteer abroad will struggle with the experience for a lifetime. Some will take away only photographs to be filed alongside shots from other trips they have taken.

But if you enter into the experience knowing that human interaction, compassion, understanding, and shared knowledge is far more valuable than your pencils or physical labor, you are far more likely to do good while you’re “there.”

It’s about connection, and putting faces to places. It’s about mutual respect.

You go to these places with the honest, ambitious belief that maybe you’ll make a difference. And you come away realizing that, just like any other travel experience, the experience changes you, too.

Traveler magazine recognized Heather Greenwood Davis and her family as Travelers of the Year in 2012. Learn more about their journey on globetrottingmama.com and on Twitter @GreenwoodDavis.

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Comments

  1. Scott Burke
    January 13, 3:53 pm

    Heather, so well said. To me these trips are so much about simply sitting across from locals and really interacting on a persona, human level, so that everyone learns from the experience. And the real key is indeed to return home and let the experience sink in, as you say; to continue learning and thinking and meeting people, all with the intention of somehow being able to help in a more meaningful way those you met abroad. It’s really a lifelong process and journey (not to sound like a clicke). Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  2. Tracey Friley
    Paris at the moment, California
    October 29, 2013, 1:56 pm

    I took a group of small group of American girls to an orphanage in Belize for a day. They were tasked with raising $100 each and donating it once they arrived. The highlight was not the donations, although you could see the girls were proud to give and the orphanage was grateful to receive. Instead, the highlight was watching the children play together. It was such a delight to see. And feel. =)

  3. Claire Algarme
    Philippines
    October 20, 2013, 2:04 am

    I have worked in non-profit organizations and foundations where we receive volunteers, both local and from abroad. Communities, especially children, always appreciate having someone visit them, spend time with them and share new things and information. Such interaction open the eyes of both the volunteer and the receiving community to realities that are outside their own sphere of life. In the end, when volunteer projects are done or when volunteers have to move on, they leave behind the spirit of kindness to individuals whom they interact with. Thank you for your article.

  4. Malachy kearns
    Galway. Ireland
    October 12, 2013, 7:42 pm

    Heather. I hope to retire soon. I want to be like you. It’s magical to make a mutual difference ! Occassionally Doing such things as meeting / shareing
    has already made my life beautiful … Blessings from Connemara

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      October 14, 2013, 6:10 am

      Thanks and safe travels.

  5. Maria Lopes
    Dubai, UAE
    October 9, 2013, 8:34 pm

    Hello Heather!
    I was reading your post and came to my mind a 24 hour layover I had in Dhaka, Bangladesh. I work as a Cabin Crew in Middle-East and although I spend few time in some destinations, I must say those 24 hours in Dhaka were the most rewarding ever. I write in a blog my interactions within the places I visit and I will leave the link, as I shared exactly the same feelings you shared in this post! http://takeaflightonthewildside.wordpress.com/2013/01/19/if-you-give-a-little-love/
    (scroll down for english version! :)
    Keep on trotting in the free world!
    Regards,
    Maria Lopes

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      October 14, 2013, 6:11 am

      Thanks. I’ll take a peek and I wish you the same. It’s funny how the most perspective-altering moments can happen in the smallest period of time, isn’t it?

  6. Maree Teolanafo
    Newcastle, Australia
    October 9, 2013, 10:06 am

    Heather, I think you’ve hit the spot when you mentioned human interaction and mutual respect. Giving gifts is a kind gesture but that alone will not have lasting effects. Your gifts of knowledge and support are priceless will inspire the Kenyan students to reach out for a better future. Similarly, they have inspired you. We cannot ‘save the world’ but touching someone’s life is a tangible achievement. I wish you well.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      October 14, 2013, 6:12 am

      I agree. Best to you too.

  7. Maryam
    lahore-Pakistan
    October 9, 2013, 6:18 am

    Heather, You are absolutely correct and such transparent attitude towards helping teh mankind can make great changes.

    • Heather Greenwood Davis
      October 14, 2013, 6:12 am

      I think so too. Thanks for your comment