Why You Should Never Make a Day Trip to an Orphanage – And What You Can Do To Help

I first visited Cambodia ten years ago, and was very moved by my experience there. The country’s gripping history, thousand year old temples and impoverished countryside make it a place rich for self-reflection. It is one of those destinations that can change the lens with which you see the entire world. 
I always knew I wanted to help, and I knew I wanted my children to have a broad world view, to be open-minded, socially-aware and compassionate. 

I decided to bring the boys on a trip to Cambodia, to show them another side of life, to understand that what we are accustomed to isn’t something we should take for granted, and to instill in them a sense of compassion and empathy, a desire to share kindness, to give and help where able.

Jake was two, much to young to learn anything (he also napped through most of the experiences, tuk tuk rides seemed to put both boys to sleep), but Tyler was four, and soaking things up like a little sponge. 

Tyler soaking in new experiences 

Jake napped through everything

The trip was eye-opening, thought-provoking and also heartbreaking. I had gone with blundering good intent and naïveté, of having the boys donate their extra toys and clothes to children who were in need. I wanted them to have a first-hand encounter, to open their eyes and hearts to the plight of others with whom we share this world. 

We collected about a hundred pieces of clothing, packed up a box of toys which Tyler picked out himself, and embarked on our journey to Siem Reap. 

I narrowed the options to visiting a school, instead of an orphanage, with the purpose to visiting to find out how we can help them. I knew that I didn’t want to go to an orphanage, as orphanage tourism is a very bad thing (it likens visiting children in orphanages to visiting animals in a zoo; visitors wouldn’t be allowed to pop in to gawk at vulnerable orphans in first world countries, so why should it be any different in developing countries?).

After consideration, I decided to work with the local tour guide to choose a village school (SCHOOL, not orphanage – big difference, the best place for children is with their families, not placed in institutional care). I requested for an introduction to a school in a community that needed help, perhaps one that was neglected and off the beaten tourist path, as I didn’t want the kids to be exposed to exploitation. 

We were brought to a rural school near the village of Pluek, which had recently experience an HIV outbreak from infected needles (village Doctors re-used needles due to lack of medical supplies), with over a hundred cases of HIV diagnosed. They are a farming community, and there were 300 children in the school. They needed toilets (there are only two in the entire school), water filtration, ceiling fans, didn’t have a canteen or a playground – but there were 300 shy, smiling and playful little faces. 

What happened next, is something I share, as it’s not what I would recommend anyone do. I left feeling despondent, that our visit was like a drop of water in the ocean. Our aid impossibly temporary – how many biscuits, balls and notebooks can you give? We didn’t have enough for 300 children, and they would be happy for only a day – what happens when all the biscuits are eaten up in two days? In truth, we would have done more harm than good. This is NOT how to help. 

It was also a terrible idea to have Tyler give away his toys. He brought his box of planes, cars and buses. Perhaps it would have been better to hand them to the teacher, we checked – but he gestured that we could hand them out.  Tyler approached the school kids shyly and started handing out his toys. Of course he didn’t have enough, and when he ran out of toys, he felt awful, and I felt worse. He went back to the van and tried to snatch the toy out of Jake’s hand to give to the kids! Who gave us the right to play Santa Claus (no haters please, we learned our lesson). We declined the tour guide’s offer to round up the children for a group photo – they’re not zoo exhibits (did they have a choice?), and how can we take these pictures to look like we actually did help, when we haven’t done anything yet.  

Unless you have the ability to make a real impact, access or means to raise funds or sustainable donations to the school, it can be harmful and misguided to think a visit can make an impact, you could do more harm than good. 

I did more online research on volunteerism during the trip. I was searching for how to help. To be honest, I was disheartened when reading the articles I found. 

The content was correct, what they stated was true, but the tone of most of these articles were damning, harsh and vitriolic, levelled against well-intending people who didn’t know better how to engage and make an impact. 

There were many Dont’s. Don’t give money to street children (they should be in school not trapped in a cycle of dependency). Don’t give money to random orphanages (many are exploiting the children and are tourist traps). Don’t volunteer (it can do more harm than good when you leave after teaching for a month as the children have attachment issues, and are you even qualified to teach?). Don’t spend your money on volunteer tourism (eg painting a school on a paid trip to the countryside as you have no experience, will probably do a shoddy job as a painter, and the money you parted with to go on that excursion in the first place, could have gone to a local painter and helped to feed his family). Don’t ship items from home (Shipping is costly and it would be cheaper to just buy flip flops in the country itself if that’s what you wanted to donate and you could support local businesses, plus many people use these donation drives like a dumping ground and give away shoes and clothes that end up in a landfill)… 

There were so many Dont’s, I combed the articles on the topic, trying to find some with a Do. Most diverted me to a website to donate cash to existing efforts. While that’s a good thing, I knew I wanted to make a more personal impact, and I wanted my boys to be involved, and to learn from the experience. 

I would suggest – you’re welcome to bring your kids to Cambodia, or any country in need of aid, if you want to show them how much help is needed. They can see with their own eyes how different life already is, from where they live. Don’t seek out the orphanages or schools, where the kids are vulnerable, descending upon them as rich foreigners doling out used things and spare dollars – you will do more harm than good to the community.

The only consolation was that we were there to find out how to help long-term. With the assistance of our guide as translator (the principal spoke no English), we were able to discover that their greatest needs were for toilets, water filtration and ceiling fans. We were heartened to hear that they were getting electricity generators by the end of the year. The principal also shared that the children could use more bicycles, as they don’t have a canteen, so they break from 11am to 2pm so the students can go home for a meal. The lucky ones have bicycles, the poor ones have to walk fairly long distances to go home and back to school. I also learned that bicycles were surprisingly costly in Cambodia (US$100 for a new one and US$50 for a used one) as they import them from Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and China (this makes no sense to me, why wouldn’t they have a factory that produces bicycles for locals; there are foreign ones that produce fancy bicycles for export not local use, but it’s what both my Tuk-Tuk driver and our waitress at lunch told me. So even if it isn’t true, it’s what the locals believe – that they have no access to cheap bicycles). 

I would like to help this school, and it’s earnest, barefoot children. In truth, many people want to help those less fortunate, but we mistrust associations and organisations we aren’t familar with, and suspect that large percentages of what we donate are squandered on bureaucracy or internal costs, when what we really want is to put the money in the hands of the needy. Yet, there are many articles which tell you not to give money to the people directly, as it breeds dependency (not good), jealousy in a community if only one family benefits (even worse) and entitlement (worst of all).

I have come to realise through my work in years of dealing with corporate sponsorship and fundraising, that even big companies are often happy to give product, lots of it, but are often reluctant to part with cash. The psyche isn’t much different for individuals, you’ll find plenty of people willing to donate items (eg clothes, toys, bicycles) but if you ask them to part with cash, you’ll find many are more resistant. It isn’t that they don’t want to help, it’s that they mistrust how the funds are spent. People want to give, but on their own terms. We can preach idealism of where and how they should give, but if it doesn’t strike a chord with them, it remains only an unfulfilled wish to help, and nothing gets done.

It’s been only a few days since my visit to the school, and I am still thinking through the best way to help. In truth, if you are reading this story, then perhaps I have already made some small impact. 

Over the next few months, I will have to make another trip, and we hope to do the following for the school we visited:

1. Start a donation drive for lightly-used footwear and clothing for the children (which are climate-appropriate for Cambodia). If you’re donating, please be mindful that volunteers spend a lot of time sorting through donated items and this isn’t a dumping ground, please be respectful of the volunteers and the recipients, and give away clothes your children have outgrown, not what you would use as dish rags. How you can help: if you know any one in freight or logistics who can help us as a collection point and with delivery, I would be happy to have them as partners. Next step would be the actual clothing drive.

2. Start a bike registry where we find a local partner able to give us bikes at goodwill price (less than US$15 a bike, as that’s about the price at which it becomes cheaper to ship donated bikes via container instead) OR start bicycle drive to collect children’s bicycles for the school over here. How you can help: Similar to the Clothing Drive, we would need a logistics sponsor/ partner who is able to help store the bikes in the warehouse while we aim to collect about 50 to 100 bicycles for the school, and eventually send them over to Cambodia once we’ve hit our target, or filled our container.

3. Raise funds or find partners who can help us build the toilets that the school needs. Check World Toilets to see why it may seem like a small thing, but many girls drop out of school for lack of sufficient toilets. 

4. Improve on the Water-filtration system, by building and installing biosand water filters, household units that produce clean drinking water directly from contaminated sources.

5. Install ceiling fans. Start a registry towards items that the school could use, much like a gift registry as I know people don’t like to give cash, unless it translates into something tangible. The fans should of course be purchased from local businesses and installed by local workers, its good to give business to the community, but we could raise funds to help with the purchase and installation. 

6. Courtyard and Playground – Construction of a sustainable , flood resistant multi purpose courtyard that could double up as an assembly area as well as a basketball / futsal sports facility. The kids don’t currently have a playground.

7.  Provide English lessons at the school. I strongly believe that one way to break out of the cycle of poverty is through education. The gift of language is one I believe would help create new opportunity for kids in the rural areas. So many people in Cambodia are enterprising but they lack ability to read and write (can’t email) so that holds them back. Being able to speak, read and write English in a country like Cambodia will open up doors to new opportunities in tourism and hospitality, help them break the cycle of poverty. Perhaps this can be done through technology, virtual English Teachers or programs How to help: Donation of old technology, eg iPads and tablets, and access to programs for virtual learning to teach English could be helpful! 

There are bigger ways to help, but that requires greater resource and investment. More needs to be done with infrastructure, job opportunities provided, local co-ops started, which can provide sustainable employment and training (or maybe a bicycle factory?) etc. I wish I could do all that, but let’s start by making impact with a few, and touching the lives of some we can help, before we take greater strides to help more.

Here are a few articles and links which I found helpful and enlightening.

On orphanage tourism 

Why You should Say No to Orphanage Tourism (Huffington Post)

Child Safe Org (why you should never visit an Orphanage and a list of organisations you can help 

On Volunteering with Kids in Cambodia  (How you can do more harm than good in http://www.movetocambodia.com)

Orphanages in Cambodia are not Tourist Attractions (article by Michael Aquino in http://www.tripsavvy.com)

Thank you for reading my story, and feel free to share any of my links about orphanage tourism and why volunteer tourism can be harmful to the community. Educating others and keeping the children safe, that’s definitely one way to help!

Maybe I have done little so far…

“Yet opening the eyes of those of us wealthy enough to afford the luxury of travel to the realities of inequality is a necessary first step if longer-term solutions to poverty, housing and food insecurity are to ever be found. 

And nothing can bring home the emotional reality of these challenges quite as well as engaging with them for yourself.” 

– Excerpt from Richard Stupart’s CNN article

It’s a good start that you do want to help, to open your eyes and heart to those in need, with whom we share our planet. I’ve always believed touching even a few lives in my lifetime, is better than doing nothing at all. The question was always “How?” 

Let me get the ball rolling. This will be a journey of discovery that may leave you more changed, then even the lives you touched. Now let’s do this together, and help the right way.  If this works for one school, we could do it for many. This is just a beginning…

Please stay tuned!

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