By Sarah Kohl, M.D., Pediatric Alliance — Chartiers/McMurray Division



Planning on Volunteering at an Overseas Orphanage?

Think again.


Who wouldn’t want to help the most vulnerable members of our global society? Helping out at an orphanage seems like a lovely way to spend a few weeks. But by going to an overseas orphanage with a voluntour company you are often doing more harm than good. It seems counter-intuitive that by volunteering to help you are actually harming the children. And these companies are abusing you, too, by tapping into your generous spirit all the while putting your money in their pockets, which doesn’t help the children or the orphanage.

Here is a guide about volunteering in orphanages.


What is the problem?

Orphaned children from resource-poor communities need skilled, trained professionals who can help the children…over time. Interacting with a child for a week or two makes you feel good but it’s confusing or heartbreaking to the child when you leave. By spending a week in an orphanage and then leaving you are disrupting long-lasting, effective solutions to complex problems.


You are unwittingly participating in child trafficking.

Many so-called ‘orphans’ are not orphans at all.

Unscrupulous operators prey on rural families. They promise that they will give the child a good education and then take their children to the orphanage where you and the other volunteers are their teachers.

Think about it: did you go to school where the teachers changed every two weeks?

If you really want to help vulnerable children, support organizations that strengthen families; a strong family gives a child the best possible start in life.


Children are not tourist destinations.

Do not post photos of ‘orphan’ children on Facebook, Instagram etc. It’s not okay to post their photos without their permission on the web. Your volunteer experience may have been wonderful, but you need to show respect and only post the photos of you with your fellow volunteers or the beautiful scenery.


You are hurting the local economy.

When you provide care for the children through your organization you make it difficult for the local community to arrive at long-term solutions for childhood poverty. You are taking the place of a paid, trained childcare professional — someone who will spend a long time with the children, is familiar with the culture, and frankly, could use a good job.


The price of your trip is not an indicator of quality.

It can be tempting to assume that the more expensive a program is, the better quality. But you’d be wrong.

These companies are using psychology against you. They know we often assume that if something is more expensive it is better quality. Instead, look at the activities being promoted and ask: are they appropriate?


All this leaves you wondering where can you find quality programs?

Reputable organizations that work with children do background checks and ask about training and prior work experience. They want to make sure that people working with their children are safe and qualified to do their job.

It’s really great to be part of something big — to help people in meaningful ways. With a little work you can research which organizations are a good fit for your skills and interests.

You can have a wonderful experience overseas, working on a meaningful project. Just leave the kids in the orphanages out of your plans.


*** Sarah Kohl, M.D. is a pediatrician at Pediatric Alliance and founder of TravelReadyMD. You can find important travel information and read her blog here. You can read more of her columns — The Travel-Ready M.D. — on The PediaBlog here.