Volunteering in an orphanage might sound like a “duh” idea in theory. There are vulnerable children on the planet, and you have the time, energy, and spirit to make those kids feel loved, appreciated, valued, and overall “good” – but it’s actually more complicated than that. Way more. Those volunteers who feel genuinely called to work with orphaned children should be willing and ready to devote a significant amount of time to their project. They should make a commitment to learning the necessary skills for developing psychologically healthy relationships that benefit the children in need.
Why Volunteer Abroad in Orphanages
*Important: Here’s a list of 24 questions to ask before volunteering at an orphanage.
Orphanages are notoriously understaffed worldwide, and volunteers who participate in well-vetted orphanage placements report high levels of satisfaction and contribution with their work. Individuals who have a unique love for children and desire to do what is needed to help those they are assisting in productive, important ways, will excel in ethical placements at organizations that value the wellbeing of the children over all other factors.
Orphanage volunteers will have the chance to learn more about childcare and also help brighten the lives of children who reside in group settings without biological parents. Volunteers spend the majority of their day supporting on-going orphanage-wide projects, such as helping to organize meaningful play time, coordinating meals, or giving a few English lessons. Sometimes a volunteer’s greatest gift is their willingness to just sit and be with the children. Of course, hugs, laughter, and silly songs tend to weasel their way into the experience too!
Opportunities for volunteering abroad in orphanages are most frequently available in developing nations, where there is a high birthrate, high levels of disease, and a high number of families living below the poverty line. Orphanage volunteering abroad is prevalent in Africa, Asia, and Latin America more than any other regions of the world. Due to the tumultuous history in many nations of Eastern Europe, there are also opportunities to work with orphans, such as in Romania.
In Asia, volunteers can easily find placements working with orphans in China, Thailand, India, and Nepal. Almost all orphanages in Nepal are located in Kathmandu and Pokhara, while the ever-increasing populations of China and India lead to a larger distribution of orphanages throughout these countries.
Volunteering at orphanages in Latin America provide volunteers with the chance to not only spend time working with children but also expand their Spanish language skills. Mexico, Costa Rica, and Peru are specifically popular countries for Latin American orphanage volunteer work. Although orphanage placements are offered across Mexico, placements are focused in the cities of San Jose in Costa Rica and Cusco in Peru.
The extreme level of poverty, periodic times of civil strife, and overwhelming number of deaths from HIV/AIDS in Africa has led to an almost incomparable population of orphans in Africa. The majority of African nations provide opportunities to volunteer with orphans, from Uganda and South Africa to Ghana and Kenya.
Orphanage Volunteering Abroad
Orphanages are typically divided into two categories: public, government run orphanages and private, internationally funded orphanages. Private orphanages that are funded by international organizations tend to have multiple locations all over the world, such as the Missionaries of Charity, which was created by Mother Teresa, or S.O.S. Children’s Village which has 500 locations in over 100 countries. On the other hand, public orphanages funded by local government units tend to struggle with availability of resources and staff.
One thing all volunteers should realize before working in orphanages is that not all children residing in orphanages are legally “orphans.” Some children stay in orphanages because their parents are mentally, physically, or financially unable to take care of them for a period of time, and the children will return to their parents once they are able to meet their needs. Others stay in orphanages because it is actually a better living situation for the children then if they were to stay at home and eat meals/reside with the family (a sad but true reality). Other children go to orphanages for certain hours during the day to receive developmental, nutritional, or social assistance, but still reside permanently with their biological parents.
Most often, volunteers serve as an extra pair of hands, helping with regular day to day operations of the orphanage. From washing dishes and changing diapers, to planning activities and cuddling, working at an orphanage encompasses a range of childcare tasks.
Placement lengths are typically pretty flexible for volunteers, but volunteering at orphanages for longer periods can help create a more stable environment for the children. Some orphanages require no specific past experience in order to volunteer; however, most require medical certificates or health exams and a commitment to confidentiality, as the children’s identity and personal information is of utmost importance to orphanage staff. Keep in mind that wise volunteers only seek placements with which their skills set is in demand or compatible; teaching one week of Vacation Bible School as a teen doesn’t necessarily qualify you to care for vulnerable youths. Be responsible while weighing program options.
Benefits & Challenges
Individuals who volunteer abroad in orphanages will have their eyes opened to the struggles of children who have lost their parents or been left abandoned to fend of the themselves. Though the situation is sometimes grim and often disheartening, many children in orphanages have a more hopeful future in store (i.e. adoption and parents to call their own), making volunteer work at certain orphanages a more optimistic experience.
Unfortunately, however, some orphanages that exist aren’t “orphanages” in the truest sense of the word. There are, for example, orphanages that serve as temporary housing facilities for children of capable parents who are taking advantage of the free government or private sector services. In rare cases, volunteers can inadvertently create a demand for parentless children with their desire to honestly help alleviate the challenges orphanages and orphaned children face. Therefore, before volunteering in orphanages abroad, volunteers have the additional responsibility of truly and deeply researching the organization they plan to work with to ensure it is ethically placing volunteers in orphanages.
For volunteers interested in working with children in their future careers, whether teaching in elementary schools, working in pediatrics, or helping out at day care centers or in social work positions, orphanage experience can be extremely applicable and beneficial professionally. Many children in orphanages deal with unique situations, disorders, and problems, which means volunteers will be exposed to a wide range of stages in development, personalities, and temperaments. If you are earning your degree in child development, behavior modification, education, public health, and many other areas, volunteering at orphanages abroad can give you hands on experience in your field and expose you to possible international careers you may not have thought of.
Orphanage work can help volunteers become more grateful for the life they were given and the opportunity to share part of the child’s life with them. Witnessing the growth of the children can also be inspiring for volunteers, showing them that no matter what challenges encountered, there is always a way to overcome the obstacles and live a happy, successful life.