All My Children: busting the myths about volunteering with kids

schoolkidsIt takes a whole village to raise a child – this is a well-known West African (Igbo) saying, and one taken to heart by volunteers who are drawn to working with children. Children have a special place in the hearts of most people, especially if they’re poor, orphaned or disabled and in need of your love, care and affection.  Generally, it’s accepted that volunteering with kids is likely to be pleasant and easy if you have an affinity with them, and there can only be positive outcomes for the children, their community and your volunteer experience.

But is that really how it works?

When you ask experienced people what volunteering with kids is like, you’ll get varying responses. People will tell you how rewarding and life-affirming it can be, and what a difference you can make to young lives - but other experienced volunteers who have spent time working with children in emerging countries in impoverished conditions might have a different tale to tell. It can be both positive and upsetting in equal measures, if you aren’t prepared sufficiently when you sign up.

Volunteers, and rightfully so, want to go where they’re most needed and where their efforts will be valued; but they also want to feel good about the experience and enjoy it, and feel positive about themselves. Dilemmas can crop up because sometimes, those two aspects of volunteering can be at opposite poles.

Come prepared – it might not be as easy as you think

Experienced volunteers will have lots of happy memories and inspiring tales to tell, but you also needto weigh up your expectations versus the reality of the situation. So you think you’ll walk into a school or orphanage and be instantly bombarded by happy children thrilled to see an exotic foreigner there to help them - no matter that they don’t speak English and you DEFINITELY don’t speak their language, you know very little about the hardships they and their elders face in life or what difficulties they might have to face in later years. You’re there to make a difference, arriving with the very best of intentions and a genuine burning desire to help. What could possibly go wrong?

The reality is that things can go wrong. But the good news is that you’re reading this article, so you’ll know to be prepared for it, and be able to turn any negatives into positives.

Help, not harm

As a well-meaning volunteer, you obviously don’t want to think that your very presence can be detrimental to the most vulnerable members of society, but ethical volunteer organisations and care workers around the world are aware of the impact a foreign volunteer can potentially have on a group of vulnerable young children. Many children from impoverished or abusive backgrounds can grow up with attachment issues. When they see different groups of volunteers for a few weeks at a time, bonding with them and then being left behind when they go home, it can be tough on them. A responsible and ethical child-centred project will be aware of the potential problems and will be able to handle them, helping the kids AND volunteers understand how to approach the issues surrounding short-term stays. Make sure you check with your volunteer organisation that the project you select has responsible professionals in charge who will ensure the experience is positive for everyone. 

The kids don’t care

Sometimes, volunteers working with children can experience a sense of rejection and feel unwanted or unnecessary. Children will be fascinated by a foreigner in their midst for a while, but their attention may wane pretty quickly once they get used to you. Children who may be used to hardship or upheaval in their lives can be even more prone to being dismissive of well-meaning volunteers – so you have to understand they’ve got bigger issues to deal with than being your new best buddy!

Volunteers working with kids from difficult backgrounds might also have to deal with a considerable amount of chaos. You may have read or heard reports of volunteers being bitten and hit by younger kids and having to break up fights between teenagers, or generally having to police children carefully to stop them getting into trouble. Such children might not have the socialisation or boundaries that you’re used to, which can make you feel helpless. Also t can feel undermining if you realise that the children you’re there to help couldn’t care less about you. But if you’re aware of these potential issues and consider yourself emotionally able to handle this aspect of child-centred projects, and accept that your time and efforts are beneficial even if the kids don’t personally thank you for it, the experience can still be incredibly rewarding for all involved. Again, a well-run project will have experienced professionals in place to deal with anything serious, so do your homework beforehand.

The moral standpoint

When you volunteer in a foreign country and immerse yourself in a culture very different to your own, it’s best to keep in the forefront of your mind that you are a guest of that country’s people, and you have to be accepting and tolerant of their ways. People may not deal with each other in the way you’re used to, but their ways are not necessarily ‘wrong’. For example, you might be against light corporal punishment used on children, but black kids in South Africa are used to being disciplined in this way. It won’t help them or you if you make a fuss about it. Obviously genuine abuse is a different matter, and you’ll have to decide what to do in that eventuality.

Children in developing countries often also work hard helping their parents or other adults with chores and duties. It has long been outmoded in the West as children are now encouraged to learn and play, perhaps with some light chores thrown in to socialise them – but other cultures may not have this luxury of leisure. For example, you may volunteer at a school where children don’t attend for days at a time because they need to help with farm work or other duties you might consider ‘adult’. Accept this as the status quo, and make sure you give your full attention to them when they get back!

Asking the right questions

Think carefully about the info you’ll need to make the right choice when deciding on a volunteer project. Find out from your volunteer organisation in touch with the project who the children are that you’ll be working with, and what backgrounds they come from. Ask yourself whether you’ll be able to give your all, so that your time spent as a volunteer will really be beneficial to them. And last but not least, ask yourself if you are emotionally and physically capable of coping with lively youngsters who may engage in any kind of behaviour, and also whether you’ll be able to cope with leaving them behind when you go home. After all, children are experts at tugging on our heartstrings – it’s almost as if they were designed that way by Nature! Always remember that despite the challenges volunteers might face, your efforts make a difference and you are positively influencing the life of a child, even if it’s in a small way. 


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