by Dan Grinthal | published Mar. 2nd, 2018
If you're thinking of trading your flip-flops and sunscreen for hammers and boots on your next vacation, you're not alone. Often referred to as “voluntourism,” the practice of journeying to distant locales in order to volunteer with social impact projects has become a popular mode of travel.
Voluntourism most commonly takes the form of short excursions lasting a month or less, including mission trips, school breaks and vacations from work. Participants commonly cite the transformative power of the experiences they've had helping other people in new communities.
Jenn Palmer is a fifth year Industrial Engineering major and an Alternative Spring Break (ASB) Leadership Scholar at RIT's Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement. This March, she'll be leading her team of RIT students to Costa Rica for her fourth ASB trip. A past trip took her to Biloxi, a small Mississippi town still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Katrina some 10 years prior.
“Being there so far after something happened and still seeing that there was so much need for help because people had stopped coming and stopped volunteering really made that trip, I feel like, the most powerful trip that I've been on — being able to talk to people in the community also about what they went through and how we could help,” Palmer said.
The Biloxi trip focused on disaster relief, as will the Houston trip ASB is running this year. However, people travel to work on projects ranging from working in city soup kitchens to entrepreneurship programs for women in poverty.
Sarah Brownell is an RIT Mechanical Engineering alum who returned to the school as a professor in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering after founding her own nonprofit in Haiti. Her experiences overseas inspired her to create some promising new programs on campus.
“I've been working on making more opportunities for students to be able to work on meaningful projects to have an impact in the world,” Brownell said.
Brownell will be leading a group of students to Haiti this May to partner with a local women's group through HOPE, a grassroots community development organization with which the professor has longstanding ties.
“It's sort of this idea that our students bring different experiences that the women's group haven't had because they're from all over the world," Brownell said. "And then the women's club brings in what's feasible in Haiti. They have a lot more information on ... how to be effective leaders in the community. I'm hoping they can teach that to the RIT students so it's more of an exchange.”
This particular program is structured as a partnership in order to avoid some of the potential negatives to social impact travel, especially internationally.
The popular 2014 documentary "Poverty, Inc." focuses on some of these less obvious downsides. The film calls attention to the fact that well meaning volunteers who travel to communities they are unfamiliar with in order to donate their time may actually be doing more harm than good. Sometimes, they might even be taking jobs away from local workers.
“It doesn't make sense to send people from here to do low-skilled labor because there's plenty of low-skilled labor in the country or people that could use the job. And often we don't have the skills even for basic construction ... so sending a bunch of teenagers down to build a school doesn't give you the best school ... we should try to use skills that are not as prevalent in the place that you are going to,” Brownell said.
Stories abound of altruistic missions gone amok because the long-term impact of the aid given was not well considered. After the catastrophic 2010 earthquake in Haiti, 15,000 tons of donated rice arrived in the small island nation. When the free rice didn't stop coming, local farmers went out of business.
Palmer offers a view from the other side of the issue, recalling disaster relief trips and an excursion to a summer camp for urban kids.
“My experience ... is that there haven't been people there who can do [the work] ... the camp itself didn't have a lot of money because they didn't charge money for the kids to come, so they couldn't hire people to help paint or clean or landscape, so we served as those functions for free," Palmer said.
Though situations where good intentions have gone awry are not uncommon, long-distance donation of goods or time can be a powerful force if considered carefully beforehand.
“The first time you go anywhere you should be getting to know the community or the people that you're working with ... Even if you know poverty is the problem, you don't really know what that means or how that impacts peoples' lives. So people should, in my opinion, go there with an idea that they are really being educated,” Brownell commented.
"Even if you know poverty is the problem, you don't really know what that means or how that impacts peoples' lives."
Volunteering certainly offers no shortage of teachable moments. Palmer recalls a trip to Philadelphia, where she and other RIT students worked at a sit-down service soup kitchen and a thrift shop which provided a free outfit to homeless individuals each week. The sponsoring organization, the St Francis Inn, works in a community heavily affected by homelessness and drug addiction.
“It's kind of eye-opening because that's not how I grew up and my town is just very different than that. So going there is a good experience and allows us to help in ways that we didn't know we were needed,” Palmer said.
"Going there is a good experience and allows us to help in ways that we didn't know we were needed."
Palmer believes lessons from trips like these are valuable takeaways.
“Bringing it back to the Rochester community I think is really important, because there are so many people that are struggling right here in our backyard,” Palmer said.
"So people should, in my opinion, go there with an idea that they are really being educated."