At 10:30 am on a Saturday morning in large Latin American city, I was sitting with a group of American students as we waited for a bus that would take us 40 minutes away to volunteer. I was curious to meet the kids we would be playing with that day. We were only told one thing about them--that they lived in severe poverty. Our job was simply to play with them--soccer, arts and crafts, board games. Despite the obvious language difference, I imagined it would be a lot similar to some of my teaching and babysitting jobs.
And in fact, it was. Just like my jobs in the US, the kids couldn't seem to keep the paint from spilling all over their clothes or the picnic tables. The boys were competing for who knew the most bad words and the girls were trying to lie about how many refills they'd already had of fruit punch. There was one adorable quiet boy, as there always is. But he warmed up to me, as they always do. And as usual, I had fun escaping the adult world to sit with young friends, who told me their dreams while I braided their hair or asked them to tell me the stories behind their drawings.
The only difference between this and my other jobs was the camera flashing. At the beginning of the day, while we were waiting for the bus, another American volunteer turned to me and said, "I just can't wait to take photos with the kids today. We will look so cute in the pictures! And we'll look really helpful, too!" For those who aren't fluent in modern American dialect, that translates to, "Putting this on Facebook will make me look like such a good person!"
But she wasn't out of the ordinary. In fact, the organization in charge of the event held an informal orientation on the bus ride, in which they literally told us it was okay to take a few "Facebook photos." They said, "We're all guilty of wanting our photo taken with poor kids." The volunteers were not, however, permitted to take photos of the neighborhood because they said, "This isn't a zoo."
I don't know if it was a zoo or not. But poverty certainly seems to be the most fashionable tourist attraction for travel abroad. And anyway, how is taking a bunch of Americans on a bus to play with poor foreign kids any different than taking them to a petting zoo? It's mutually beneficial, sure. The animals get their feed, the people get their photo. Not only do they feel good, but they look good, too.
But sustainable? There certainly are plenty of volunteer abroad programs that work. But I always worry more specifically about the child-centered volunteer programs that run on a flow of international volunteers. It's a great experience for everyone involved to be exposed to global cultures. But in some cases, a global mindset isn't in the bare necessities for the children actually receiving the services. Kids are complex and soak in everything, so they need neighborhood role models who consistently show up, who build relationships, who fuel local empowerment--not just kind-hearted foreigners with good intentions, in and out in a flash of the camera.
Hannah Oppenheimer is a 2010 Reynolds Scholar at NYU's College of Arts & Science. She is currently studying abroad in Buenos Aires.