5 Weeks In – Reflecting on our Voluntourism Experience

We’ve gotten well past the halfway point in our volunteering session at the Ranong Special Education Center. 5 weeks completed and 3 left to go!

Us with the team! (And a few visiting teachers from other schools.)

Us with the team! (And a few visiting teachers from other schools.)

I spent the weekend drafting a compilation of my notes to guide the next volunteers while on the side I’ve had a post written by Ken Budd at Intelligent Travel on the myths around voluntourism open on my phone. The combination has had me reflecting on my own experience with voluntourism and on what hard earned wisdom I’d like to pass on to others.

When I started looking into volunteering opportunities in South East Asia, I devoured whatever I could find on the topic so I was well aware that, yes, voluntouring is a controversial holiday activity. It seemed, though, that those hating based on personal experience were those who had gone into projects inadequately prepared, with limited volunteering experience and idealistic expectations.

Not wanting to, you know, end up bitter like them, I armed myself with a plan. Now that we’ve been doing what we can to help out here in Thailand for more than a month, I feel it’s time to evaluate.

Preparation: Choosing a project

I heard the horror stories about orphanages reportedly “buying” children for volunteers to look after (you would think that there are enough children needing a home that this wouldn’t be necessary, but I guess not), so I wanted to stay clear of orphanages. I didn’t absolutely need to work with children anyway, but I had in mind that if I did, I would look into volunteering at a school. If schools follow the same strategies as those orphanages and pay parents for their kids to get an education, that’s good, right?

To find the perfect project for myself, I investigated suggestions from my Lonely Planet book. I actually wasn’t all that interested in Thailand: everyone goes to Thailand and in my mind it was overrun by spoiled European teenagers and creepy old white men. Sumatra or Laos or the Philippines… Now those were proper prospects!

The organization that caught my eye, though, was Andaman Discoveries. Their website showed great understanding and commitment to sustainable tourism and fair exchange between locals and visitors. They were locally founded and operated but had a few Western staff members. I took that to mean that they were well in tune with local needs but also easy to communicate with. They just happened to be based in Thailand. That’s where I decided that a smooth experience was more important than trekking unbeaten paths and checked out their projects.

I felt life nudging me when I noticed that one of them was at a special needs school. While I’m not a teacher nor have any sort of official certification (unless a BA in psychology counts), four summers of training and full time hands-on work with children at Austime Quebec does earn me a rank slightly beyond “unskilled”. It’s also a field that I’m passionate about and study extensively in my free time and that, if I do say so myself, I kinda, you know, have a knack for.

I choose to stay for 8 weeks based on my experiences with Austisme Quebec. The day camps I worked at lasted that long, which was perfect. There was enough time to figure out how things worked, to build meaningful connections with the children and other counsellors and to become proficient enough to be able to contribute something worthwhile. And when the intensity of camp became too much and a break was needed, the summer was coming to an end anyway. I figured this would translate well to volunteering at a school so 8 weeks it was.

And that’s how I ended up in Thailand at the Ranong Special Education Center for 8 weeks.

Preparation: Goals

When people write about their unfortunate experiences volunteering abroad, the main problem seems to be unrealistic expectations that are, obviously, not met. Nobody’s life is radically changed, poverty isn’t cured, the houses they build aren’t Western dream homes, they are less qualified for most tasks than local workers and eventually the realization that Western (or rather, developed country) solutions aren’t optimal in other environments slaps them in the face. Then they come home feeling guilty, like they took advantage of someone’s hospitality, caused extra problems and sat around as if watching a freak show.

I think it’s actually not a bad thing that people have felt that way and have talked about it. I just feel that the solution isn’t to boycott or look down on voluntourism (if anything, just discovering that Western solutions aren’t a one-size fits-all makes an experience worthwhile IMO), but rather brainstorm ideas to make volunteer-site relationships more fruitful for everyone.

Having extensive volunteering experience at home and none abroad, I went in with the same mindset I’ve always used: figure it out when I get there. Even when you have a detailed description of what’s expected of you (and usually you don’t), it’s hard to know exactly what you can contribute until you’re personally acquainted with the site or project.

It worked for me. Volunteering abroad was identical to volunteering at home, only with the added spices of the culture shock and language barriers!

On Location: Keeping the Eyes (and the Mind) Open

I think the first and strongest impression I had was this: the school is isolated, but not poor.

The relative meaning of poverty is worthy of its own 2k word blog post so I’ll spare the details, the important thing is that this school would probably more interested in news from the outside world (particularly in the field of special education since new discoveries probably take awhile to be translated into Thai) than in anything concerning basic needs.

Another thing I noticed is how much the school is part of the community. Several times a week, families, students from other schools, radio stations, even military representatives stop by to donate a lunch or a snack and interact with the children. You don’t see that often in Canada and it gets the wheels turning in my head for projects I could suggest at home.

On the more challenging and less rosey side of things, I did feel significantly held back by language barriers and a lack of understanding of what skills Thai children need to develop in order to function well later on in life. Culture shock is worth a post of its own, but for now let’s just say that making myself useful took a lot more soul searching and creative thinking than it would have normally.

And finally, the school had a lot of staff. Like so much staff. The teachers were also extremely competent and much more aware of Thai reality than I so I wondered what I could possibly contribute to this already excellent team.

Concluding: Where Could I Help?

So, Ed and I did the most logical thing: we observed, attempted to make ourselves useful and paid attention to the reactions we got.

I came to the conclusion that there were indeed ways we could contribute, but that they weren’t necessarily what I would have thought of if someone had asked me before the trip what I expected to do in this school in remote Thailand. Here’s an adapted version of what I wrote on my report:

1- New ideas: When we started, the staff asked us for “programs” but because our communication was limited, it ended up being very difficult getting them on board with new ideas. Many of the tools we use in the West inconsistent with Thai reality anyway. In the end, the new ideas that were most successful were simple exercises we could do one-on-one with the children (throwing or rolling balls instead of kicking, hand clapping games, pictograph cards, sorting games, easy art projects). Those activities provided diversity more than revolution, but diversity is still appreciated by those tired of blocks and clay every day!

2- Experience dealing with foreigners: Unless they work in the tourism industry, Ranong-ians rarely get to interact with people from the outside. Meeting people who don’t understand their language or who have unexpected reactions is a life experience they might not obtain otherwise. Staff as well as students can benefit (After all, the whole reason we embark on these trips is to have a foreign culture experience. Most people don’t have that opportunity, so we can bring the experience to them.)

3- English practice: English skills among the staff range from nonexistent to medium. Having English speakers on site allow those who wish to practice and improve their skills to do so. Some of the children want to learn English words as well and those who have the potential to eventually integrate the regular school system will need to know some English.

4- Time: I think this is where we are the most valuable! Even though there is a lot of staff, they are often tied down by paperwork (Thailand loves its paperwork!) or planning, so they all have limited time to give the children. Then, when they are with the children, they have to spread their attention over an entire group. Us volunteers, however, are free to spend an hour practicing a single skill with a child who happens to be in the right state of mind that day. We can afford to be patient with the child who takes several minutes to put on her shoes before lunch. I like to believe that the extra one-on-one time we can give to allow the children to develop given skills can have lasting effects as those children will keep those skills forever.

So whenever I feel like I’m not doing enough or taking advantage of their hospitality, I remind myself of #4 – that I can be useful, not because of my teaching skills, nor because of my foreigner status, nor even because I speak English, but because I’m a volunteer with time on my hands, no objectives to meet and no one demanding my attention. Exactly the same as if I were volunteering back home.

As for concerns about hurting the local economy, I can assure you that the school is fully staffed and that volunteers are a surplus (making #4 possible), that we pay rent and utilities, buy groceries, shop at local stores and eat at local restaurants. I think we are contributing as much to the economy as anyone!

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