How to Volunteer at an Orphanage Responsibly

Volunteering at orphanages abroad has generated polarizing opinions — from a positive first person account of life as an orphan poignantly written by Wycliffe Sande — to warnings on the damage that orphanage tourism can inflict on children residing at these facilities.

Sande’s essay about growing up on the streets of Uganda breaks your heart — yet his moments of hope stemmed from volunteers at a nearby orphanage. He connected deeply with a British woman who never forgot him, eventually sponsoring his education until he was admitted to study law at London University.

Sande’s story is a resounding success, yet this perspective is not told frequently. Usually, it’s the darker side of orphanages that the mainstream media focuses on. That because orphanage tourism certainly is a problem when a facility doesn’t act responsibly or falsely represents itself.

For example, one of the bigger issues arises when homes for children are casually referred to as “orphanages.” In many developing countries, factors such as intense poverty, the social stigma of broken families, and mental illness lead to the breakdown of family units.

Children with living relatives (whether it is one parent or a close relative) are generally placed in these homes to be given the chance to attend regular school or maybe have their education sponsored. In these cases, exposure to a foreign volunteer can be beneficial — with the proper screening and a clear intent on the volunteer goals (i.e., teaching English or a particular skill set). What often happens, however, is that foreign volunteers arrive not knowing these cultural factors and feel duped.

Though we don’t offer volunteering at orphanages on our Discover Corps trips, we do see the benefits of these type of volunteer experiences. If you are determined to volunteer at an orphanage abroad, here are some questions you can ask to make sure you’re doing so responsibly.

5 Questions to Ask Before Volunteering at an Orphanage Abroad

1. Is the orphanage legal?

Legal orphanages will disclose if they are registered with a national governmental authority. A registered orphanage is bound by law to uphold minimum standards of care and is subject to periodic inspections.

2. Does the orphanage protect children?

When vetting which orphanage you’d like to volunteer with, ensure the orphanage demonstrates they have policies to safeguard children from dangers or vulnerabilities.

3. How are visitors handled?

Good organizations do solid background checks on all staff and volunteers. If you notice that an orphanage has not asked you for references or a background check, don’t support them. Visitors should not be able to drop in and have access to children unsupervised — nor should visitors be allowed to take children away from the orphanage unattended.

4. Who staffs the orphanage?

Children at orphanages often have complex needs and require delicate care by trained staff. Orphanages that rely strictly on foreign volunteers and staff can jeopardize the long-term connections that children so desperately need. Make sure the orphanage you volunteer at has long-term staff members with whom the children can bond. Local support staff also give a cultural framework that outsiders are unable to fully provide.

5. Does the orphanage actively encourage family reunification?

This is important because, as mentioned above, many children in orphanages aren’t truly orphans; they often have at least one living parent or even full families living close by. A legitimate orphanage should be able to show they’re proactively exploring family and community care situations for their children. This can include kinship care (by an uncle, aunt, or grandparent) or foster care, which is undertaken by members of the community.

Volunteering at orphanages abroad is a delicate issue and should be thoroughly researched. By answering these questions with honesty, you increase the odds that both you and the children will have a rewarding experience.

 Do you think volunteering at orphanages can have a positive impact? 

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