15: my experience as a voluntourist

This time of year, I find myself dwelling daily on the motivations for charity, volunteerism, and what drives people to try to do good in this world.

In general, I believe that people truly do mean well.

You donate some of what you’ve earned because you know that someone else could use it more than you could. You volunteer some time because it feels good to do work that makes a difference in the lives of others.

But what if you mean well, but nothing you do makes any difference whatsoever?

I was confronted with this question a few years ago, during a week-long spring break trip to Jamaica with about a dozen other students from my university. I was the official trip videographer, and the video I created is at the end of this post.

So no, we didn’t do any partying. This was a service experience. Or that’s how it was sold, at least. We collected school supplies to donate, and were prepared to spend time in schools, nursing homes, clinics, even building a home Habitat for Humanity-style.

In short, we were prepared to make a difference.

Pretty quickly after arriving, most of us realized that our expectations didn’t quite match reality.

On our first day, we were introduced to the community which we’d be serving: Mandeville, the capital and largest town of the parish of Manchester, located in the rural heart of Jamaica.

If you get away from the tourist-ridden coastlines, you’ll find that Jamaica has a very diverse, rugged geography of mountainous landscapes, dense forests, and bustling towns.

Venturing out into the countryside, I had my first encounter with true poverty.


The first family we met.

A local pastor brought us into the homes of families who, for one reason or another, had no access to food most days. They had the bare minimum amount of space needed to shelter their large families.

The home’s kitchen.

And I think it was eye-opening for us to see how they lived. But to me, it also felt invasive. We came, we felt awkward, we left. Meanwhile, these families were going hungry.

And wherever we went, I experienced a very similar feeling. We entered schools, expecting them to benefit from our visit. But no school needs a teacher for one afternoon.

So I think we were more like tourists than anything, coming in and disrupting their process so that we could see how they lived.

So what’s my point? Was it a waste of a trip? No, I don’t think so. I believe that each of us learned a lot, gained valuable new insights and perspectives. I will never forget the people we met, and I will never stop being thankful for the comfort I’m afforded in my daily life.

What I know now is this: If you want to make a big difference, you need to put your all into it. Visiting an orphanage for a few hours, or a nursing home for one day, is not going to change anyone’s life.

During our time there, we met a group of young adults who were spending a full year living together in Mandeville and helping in various ways. Some were full-time teachers. Others were nurses. Each dedicating their all to their mission.

And I’m sure it wasn’t easy, and it wasn’t always fun. But they were making an impact. Connecting with the people they worked with, and continuing to help those people week after week, month after month.

2 Replies to “15: my experience as a voluntourist”

  1. I think this is an interesting topic because many of us have either known someone who has gone on a trip like this, thought about going, or have actually had a similar opportunity for international volunteerism. I know we’ve had many conversations about this sort of thing already, but at the end of it all would you go on another trip like this? Because I think appreciating the value or even recommending short-term volunteering to someone else isn’t the same as considering having the experience yourself for a second time. What are your thoughts on that?

    1. I would not. I got what I could out of this particular type of trip, and I don’t think I could get anything new out of a repeat. If anything, it would only serve to frustrate me.
      What I would consider is a long-term engagement, maybe a month or a few months or even a year. That sort of opportunity would, in my opinion, make a much more lasting impact on a community in need.
      Thanks for asking, and we can def get into more detail the next time we talk. (:

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