A Challenging Read – Guardian Article about “Voluntourism”

18 Jan

This article by the Guardian in 2018 hit me hard – challenging me to reflect on Campamento.

  • Are we – travelers, supporters, and I – “sustain[ing] practices and institutions that actually do harm“?
  • Is Campamento “about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege“?
  • “Hogar Seguro Virgen de la Asunción” sounds horrific and is now closed. This was a Catholic institution. Could this happen to our Hogar? Is our Hogar like the more humane but “chaotic, impersonal and lacking stimulation” Hogar?
  • How about this description the reporter gave of her feelings after a summer of working at a home for boys in Detroit?

“I now understand that I did leave Rodrick with something: a sense of abandonment. Every single boy in that institution already had abandonment issues. If it was hard for me to leave these boys behind, how much harder was it for them to see me go? And the next adult who came for a few weeks? And the next one? They might have learned that there are people who love them and will take them on walks. But they also learned that these people always leave.

  • Is our Hogar spending “not much money […] on its most vulnerable, disabled residents, while a lot of investment has gone towards making the volunteer experience as comfortable as possible“?

On my first read of this article, I was reading it defensively – thinking “That’s not what we do.” “Our Hogar is not like that.” Then, I read it again with a more open mind.

Update 2022 – another article outlining two sides of voluntourism. https://www.worldvision.ca/stories/voluntourism-the-good-and-the-bad Their suggestion to teach local English teachers is interesting!

Here are my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours.

Are we sustaining practices that actually do harm? The reality is we aren’t sustaining anything. The home does not exist to host Campamento. Campamento is a small, optional part of a comprehensive program that is the Hogar. The Sisters provide the foundation of the Hogar. Campamento (I hope) merely enhances the program that they design and run.

As for doing harm – I’ve seen the opposite. Many girls thrive at the family-like setting at the Hogar. (For those who don’t like it for whatever reason, they can return to their homes.) They get basics like safety, a home, food, school, tutoring (many of their parents are illiterate), values, self-esteem, chores, affection, and support from each other.

An old practice, not used any more, was to invite girls to camp before joining the Hogar, to see if she’d like it. One year a new girl came and she had a very tough exterior, was very skeptical of camp (pretty reasonable from a kid who’s never seen anything like the Hogar or experienced anything like camp.) She stuck with it though. Two days later, another new girl joined. The next girl’s response was to cry all day. I’ll never forget what girl #1, with her 2 days off experience told girl #2 “This place is not that bad. The women here are nice and they feed you three times a day.” Girl #2 wiped away her tears, then joined the game going on. Both girls thrived for a while at the home. Neither stayed through graduation.

The education piece is major, even if a girl leaves before graduation, she receives a much better education than she would have otherwise. Many continue their education, even after leaving the home. But it is harder without the support they get at the Hogar.

By “enhancing”, we run a 2 week summer camp with: Bible study themed “Women of Faith”, educational enrichment focusing on math and English, as well as crafts, games, songs, skits, and free time. Our focus is on self-confidence and self-esteem. Many well-off families send their kids to similar camps over the summer. We also work with the director of the hogar on the curriculum to make sure we’re a positive influence at the home.

Over the last 19 years, we’ve had a lot of positive feedback from the Sisters, the girls, and even the community. Here’s my two favorite: A new driver joined the home. At the end of camp, when he was bringing us back to the airport, he said “Many groups come to visit the girls, bringing donations or holding a party. I’ve only seen the girls cry when you leave.” The other is when Sister Fifi took the reins as director of the hogar soon after camp the previous year. She said that she was looking forward to camp and can’t believe it’s finally here. I asked her why, because summer is usually a break for her and camp is a ton of work for her! She said “Since I joined, all I heard was ‘at camp we do this, at camp we do that. The girls talk about camp all year long.” At the end of camp, she told us that she now knows why!

I hope each traveler gets a deep spiritual and personal experience at camp, as well as fun!

2 Responses to “A Challenging Read – Guardian Article about “Voluntourism””

  1. susan hulbert January 18, 2020 at 4:29 am #

    Wow Ann! This is eye opening. We and others are perpetrating a system that does solve the base problems of poverty, family disintegration, and lack of basic health care. The “abandonment” issue hit me hard, too.
    Campamento does have the good feature of some consistency of adult presence every year…you and Jeannie. Thanks God.
    Teresa Toda does not remove children from their families permanently. Needless to say it does remove them for a majority of the year.
    Yah? What to do?
    Here’s a paragraph that tells a lot.
    In a 2012 essay on what he dubbed “the White Saviour Industrial Complex,” the novelist Teju Cole pleaded for humility. It is “not about justice,” Cole wrote. “It is about having a big emotional experience that validates privilege.” Voluntourism, he argued, perpetuates the myth that change happens as a result of expressions of caring from rich white people.
    What is and what was my true motivation?
    I had an opportunity to go on a mission trip to Estrada, Costa Rica, along with church members from North Carolina where we are retired…I past this year, thinking I would consider it for next year…or maybe not.
    Thanks for the article.

    • Ann McGuire January 18, 2020 at 3:43 pm #

      Thank you Susan! Yes, the girls go back to their homes (if safe) every month and over the summer. The idea is to maintain connections with their communities and families. With the education, they can help eventually their whole family and community. We’re sad when a girl decides she wants to leave the home. At camp last year, on a community we visited a girl and her family at her home. She was a top student, but wanted to stay home with her mom and siblings. She does go to school, but it’s about a 1 1/2 hour walk each way. The Sisters told her she’s always welcome back, but it was her and her family’s decision. One of my prayers is that we’re doing the right thing there.
      And, even if you come once, they see us as a group that continues to come each year. They love new travelers and ask abut those who didn’t return. So, thank you and your daughter for being a part of it!

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