Best Practices for Volunteering with Street Children

by Ashley Houston

Want to give back? Looking to help those less fortunate? Awesome, these are great ambitions! You can certainly serve your purpose and drive for giving back and help the less fortunate through volunteering with street children abroad. However, it’s vital that you are careful when thinking about your goals and expectations for your volunteer abroad experience, especially when working with children.

What we think in our own cultural context may be very different from the local community and what they need. Understanding a population and some recommended strategies for working with them most effectively can turn a volunteer experience from, “Get me out of here!” to “When can I return?”. So first, let’s define who street children are:

About Street Children

Street children live in many parts of the world, with a large percentage based in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Eastern Europe. In fact, there’s an estimated 100 million street children worldwide, though how this group is defined can sometimes be debateable. For our purposes, not all street children are homeless or orphaned, some are living or working on the street for their livelihood, while others may be runaways.

The commonalities among street children worldwide are typically a lack of proper medical care, limited or no access to education, and that they spend the majority of their day living or working on the street. Street children are more exposed to drugs, crime, disease, and abuse, all common challenges of living on the street. They face a variety of issues in different parts of the world: hunger, child labor, poor health and hygiene, harsh climates, lack of education, homelessness, and much more.

Volunteering abroad with street children can entail simple games and playing with the children to help them socialize, providing educational support, or even helping them with basic health and safety needs. To make sure you are helping in the way that the kids in your chosen locations need you to help them, here are some best practices for volunteering abroad with street children:

Before You Go

Research and select a reputable volunteer organization. Ask questions, talk with alumni, review their website thoroughly as there are many scams out there. GoAbroad’s verification system and massive collection of alumni reviews and interviews can help you get an unbiased and critical view of an organization, and is a great place to start your search for a program volunteering with street children.

Expect to learn. You will make beneficial, positive contributions while volunteering with street children, but what you learn from them, the experience, and the organization you are working with can teach you a lot too. Don’t be afraid to ask questions, but be respectful of the culture and any barriers you may face.

While You’re There

Be consistent in showing up to volunteer with the children on time and when you said you would, and be honest in letting the children know if you will return in the future. It is best to commit to at least a month when volunteering abroad with street children, as constant volunteer turnover can impact the children negatively.

Be patient. Getting acclimated to an organization’s programming and structure can take some time. Support where you can, and ask questions when needed.

Stay as positive and encouraging as you can when playing with or teaching the children. They will look up to you as an adult and role model. Set good examples and keep things as upbeat as possible.

Don’t give gifts directly to the children or their parents (this includes money, toys, clothing, school supplies, etc.). Showering children with gifts can create a power dynamic and a welfare mentality. The best thing you can do is give any donations, be it funds or items, to the organization you are working with, so they can distribute the donations as they see fit.

Don’t assume your presence and volunteer work will make an immediate change in a child’s life. Yes, your support, time, and energy are highly valued and you’ll have an opportunity to positively impact each child, but your role is to be a supportive role model and follow along with the volunteer organization’s mission, goals, and structure.

Don’t create your own project or plan without checking with someone from the organization. These organizations will have a structure in place for a reason, and it’s best not to come in and impose your ideas to strongly before spending a good amount of time observing. Suggestion and sharing is a great way to provide new thoughts and perspectives, but leave the programming decisions to the organization. In this way, always remember to respect what they have established.

Street children are extremely vulnerable and easily impressionable. Most live without the ability to attend school, no access to health care, and little to no skills or knowledge to help them in develop a  career off the street. With your support, through structured volunteer abroad organizations, you can provide opportunities for socialization, positive role modeling and reinforcement, and educational assistance, making volunteering with street children an incredibly impactful way to spend your time abroad.

Check out these top three opportunities to volunteer abroad with street children:

  1. India - Teach children living in a slum in the city of New Delhi
  2. Ethiopia - Help care for children previously living on the streets of Addis Ababa
  3. Kenya - Work at a day center for street children in Nakuru, Nairobi, or the base of Mt. Kenya