As I prepare to head back to South East Asia, I got to thinking about my previous visits to the Continent and wanted to share my volunteering experience in Thailand as a reference point for those of you who are looking to factor some volunteer work into your travels.
In 2012, having just finished my University studies in the UK, I trotted off across the globe bright eyed and bushy tailed on my gap year (“gap yah”)
I was (like many others I presume) determined to make a difference on my gap year – I didn’t want to just sight see, I wanted to meet and integrate with real local communities, and do what I could to help those less fortunate than myself.
I settled for Thailand for my volunteer work as, like most travel w*nkers I’d watched “The Beach” and fallen in love with the idea of belonging to an International community (minus the Lord of the Flies-esque antics and shark attacks), and of course, at the prospect of the beautiful beaches.
I discovered a company called ‘Starfish Volunteers’ who offered a program whereby you could volunteer in an orphanage for a month, three months, a year, and so on. Happy with my choice, I headed out to Sangkhlaburi, Thailand – the small rural village on the Burmese border where my placement was located.
I would care for the children and teach English in two orphanages – the ‘Dream House’ orphanage housing approximately 15 children, and the ‘Nun School’, home to over 100 Children. The placement felt really rewarding – the Children in both locations were lovely and although they had very little, were extremely upbeat and happy. In the classroom they were so engaged and eager to learn, determined at such a young age to improve their language abilities and build a better life for themselves. Had I taught in a UK classroom, I would envisage much more disruption!
I spent just over a month in Thailand and felt really connected to the children; when I had to leave I felt heartbroken and hoped that these bright young people would continue to feel driven and meet their aspirations as they grew older.
At the Dreamhouse orphanage, something didn’t seem quite right – The orphanage was ran by “V”, a Filipino Woman who came to Thailand as a Christian Missionary, founded the Orphanage and in her words, ‘saved’ the Children.
V, her husband and their child lived within the main orphanage building – far from the lap of luxury but a considerably more comfortable place to stay than that of the Orphans who slept in outhouses in the grounds – envisage a shed with a leaky roof and you get the idea. These ‘sheds’ or orphan homes accommodated 5-6 children apiece in a very cramped space. I was absolutely horrified by what I saw. V explained that there had been a storm that had damaged the rooftops and they simply could not afford to repair them at this time.
There were a few of us volunteering at the Orphanage and we were concerned for the wellbeing of the children so after speaking to our Starfish Volunteers representative, we discovered that by buying ‘volunteer t-shirts’ and making donations to the charity, they could raise money to make the necessary repairs on the orphanage and to go towards medical bills and vaccinations for the children – obviously then we all pitched in what we could to fund this – our money equates to a lot more over here, we could make these donations and solve all the issues so that the Orphans can live more happy, comfortable lives right?
I went on for two years safe in this notion, I’d see drives from the orphanage every now and then saying that they needed clothes and toys so I’d send these over, often wondering what the Children were up to now – are there new volunteers at the Orphanage taking care of them? Maybe some of them were lucky enough to have found homes by now?
One day I was talking to a friend that was considering doing volunteer work, feeling a need to give something back after “selling his soul” to the corporate world as he put it – I told him about how rewarding my experience was and opened up my trusty friend Google to research… only to find an article published in The Daily Mail about fake orphanages as a ploy to gain money, “how terrible!” I thought to myself, opened up the article and… it was the dream house orphanage in Sangkhlaburi – my orphanage, my children. I felt sick.
Another volunteer had caught V dragging a child around by her hair. Upon investigation, local authorities discovered that this wasn’t the first instance of this – V had been physically and emotionally abusing the Children. The children weren’t really orphans as she had stated; in fact they were from extremely poor families whom V and Starfish had contacted under false pretenses to say that they could offer their children a better life and an education. The children were deliberately underfed to “look thin” to create sympathy from gullible Western volunteers and raise money.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing – looking back, I knew that something wasn’t right at the time. I paid around £800 for my volunteer experience – where was this money going? I stayed in basic dormitory accommodation so this should have done more than fix the roof! Factor in the additional donations from the volunteers and that is a substantial amount in Thai currency. I hated myself for not thinking this way sooner, I had not realized that any human was capable of exploiting children in this way – not only had I not noticed, I had contributed to their exploitation by donating and participating in the program.
The last I heard was that the Children were being re-homed, and another Charity had stepped in in the short term. V was still on the run amidst fears she may open up another exploitative venture.
If there’s one thing I can take away from this, I would still like to hope that having the volunteers present on site, the love and attention that they provided, and the opportunity they gave the Children to practice their English skills was a positive experience for the Orphans in a dark time.
I would absolutely still recommend volunteer work -but urge you to do your background research on the company you are going through.
When the truth about The Dreamhouse came out, it was revealed that some of the workers at Starfish Volunteers had been profiting from donations – I do not doubt that they have now been reappointed, but I would urge you to reconsider using this organisation who did not instigate the appropriate regular checks on the well-being of children who, ultimately, came under their responsibility and whom failed to recognize the exploitative activities of those working for their organization.
Responsible volunteering checklist:
Do your research – take a look at reviews of previous volunteers and at the organisation’s website and try to gauge an impression from this – of course you can never be 100% certain, but first impressions count for a lot – take a look at the wording used on the site (does it appear at all patronising? Charitable organisations should convey a positive message about the community) , the photos (are the locals integrating with volunteers and Westerners? That’s a good sign. Are the children sitting alone looking hungry and forlorn like an Oxfam advert? Not a good sign)
If the participation fee is high, consider where your money is going. Any reputable organisation will have no issue with giving you visibility on their expenditure. Take a brief look at the numbers to make sure it seems accurate.
How does the Organisation select its Volunteers? If you are working with Children and/or vulnerable adults, you should be CRB checked. The organisation should strive to protect those under its care and thereby check the interests and intentions of those wishing to help out.
What support will you receive before and during the placement? At both of my placements, we were all just dropped in the Orphanages and left to get on with it – I believe a good organisation should have clearer points outlined as to what it would like the local community to gain from the time you are there, or at least some form of schedule. Before the placement we were not given any information or overview of the Children or activities.
Is it right for you? This is another important one I urge you to think about in detail. If you are going to Africa to teach English because you think it’s going to help you with your CV, but don’t really like Children… you’re doing it for the wrong reasons. This is true of all placements – community involved or those with manual labour but especially where vulnerable people are involved.
Remember these are real people and real communities – don’t treat them like another tourist site – some people visit an Orphanage for a week, snap a load of pictures of the Children like they’re the Taj Mahal and then go off on their way feeling like Jesus for ‘helping’. Don’t be that guy.
Preperation and Skills – what can you bring to the table? In which areas can you help out? I found that my TEFL qualification helped me a lot in terms of setting up lesson plans and structures in the Orphanage. I know I wouldn’t have been any use on a building placement.
Do you have any volunteer experience to share? Perhaps you were even involved with Starfish Volunteers? Comment or get in touch! I’d love to hear your take on this.
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