One of the responsibilities of Program Directors at the Manna Project is to coordinate and run spring break service trips. During the first week of March, I will be responsible for coordinating eleven Vanderbilt University students who will stay in the volunteer house, assist with the Manna Project’s weekly programs and English classes, and participate in community dinners and cultural activities around Quito. The upcoming spring break trip has made me think a lot about the idea of “voluntourism.” Voluntourism is defined as doing volunteer work in a community where you are also vacationing. An estimated 1.6 million people volunteer on vacation each year, and the voluntourism industry is worth $173 billion annually. By being privileged enough to travel the world, the eager volunteer somehow feels qualified to ease the world’s ills.
Community development is a complicated, long-term field that is plagued by clichés and good but unrealistic intentions. The story of the white volunteer arriving “on the ground” in a “third-world” country to work “in the field” and “change the lives” of impoverished people is all too familiar. Short-term volunteer groups come for a week or two to work on a project such as a medical clinic, an orphanage visit, or school or home construction. Just as quickly as they arrive, they leave, often without leaving an infrastructure for sustainability in place. For example, it is a wonderful act of service to build a new school, but if there are students with access to transportation, textbooks, or qualified teachers in place, the building just becomes another abandoned infrastructure in the community. The sad reality is that many short-term service trips have been criticized to benefit the volunteer more than the community members in the country of service. The volunteer feels the satisfaction of seeing the “real” or “authentic” country and of using his or her vacation time to do good.
I want to approach the spring break trip thoughtfully with these realities in mind. How do I give a meaningful experience to both the community and a group of students who will be in Ecuador for a mere seven days? A benefit of my Lumos award is that I have the opportunity to spend the extended time of seven months in Ecuador. I’d like to inspire the Spring Break volunteers to apply for summer intern or program director positions to return to Ecuador in the future. I’d also like for the spring break volunteers’ service to contribute to improving sustainability of the Manna Project’s presence in Ecuador. My ideas include: organizing community dinners with Manna’s host family contacts, organizing resource donations from the States, marketing the Manna Project’s ESL resources, adult conversation, and homework help, and involving both children and parents in the Manna Project’s programming. The community center is a staple for children who are regulars – they count on Manna every afternoon to help them with English homework that their parents cannot help them with. I want more community members to become “regulars” of the community center, and view the center as a long term, stable presence in the community. I think that the spring break volunteers could think about how to improve access to resources and the reach of the Manna Project’s programs, a goal which I will continue to advance as a long-term volunteer. The spring break volunteers could also survey the Manna Project’s programs and make suggestions for improvement.
As I’ve struggled with the voluntourist’s dilemma, I encountered some good advice: arrive with no expectations, be present, and observe. Listen to community members first and then form a course of action. Sometimes you can’t “help,” all you can do is experience the country with an open mind, listen with open hears, and grow with an open heart. The change will come, just not when you will it to happen.