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International Volunteering: What to Know Before You Go

For most massage therapists, the thought of helping another person is at the core of our work. However, when it comes to volunteering abroad, there are some very real considerations to undertake before you decide on how best to provide your professional services.

Before you set out abroad, you'll want to do your research and ensure you are applying to a responsible and quality program. Unfortunately, the Internet is flooded with many scams and volunteer programs that cause more harm than help in the communities they work with. When considering a volunteer program, the best interest of local communities should be first and foremost. The community should benefit directly, or indirectly, from your work there.

Skills and Qualifications

No volunteer program should ever allow volunteers to do something they would be unqualified for in their home environment. When it comes to volunteer massage and touch therapy programs, qualified volunteers would be considered as those who possess training, education, licensure and accreditation in the forms of health care they are to provide, which include staff education.

The potential volunteer health care professional should provide to the organization a copy of all accreditation and licensure documents, submit to an accredited background check, signed code of conduct and volunteer agreement documents.

International Volunteering - Copyright – Stock Photo / Register Mark The organization should only accept volunteer health care professionals who are qualified, have been vetted and thoroughly background checked, agree to the child protection code of conduct, have signed a volunteer agreement which states that they will adhere to proper health care standards and infection control, agree to adhere to a very clear professional code of conduct, and sign all documents as required in relation to protection of children and the community in which they live. Organizational guidelines for volunteers working on project sites where children are present, should be required to have an enhanced criminal records check/background check administered by an accredited independent background check agency.

An Orphanage or Children's Care Site

To many, it appears a good idea to visit an orphanage and play with the children there. You have even likely heard stories from others who did so on a vacation and say it was such a rewarding experience, or a reminder of what is really important in life. However, the question comes up: "What is the impact of visiting and playing with children?" "Is this sustainable, or does it cause harm?" Many children are living in orphanages and care settings due to abandonment, while others are there with the hopes of being reunited with their family and reintegrated into their communities. Playing with the children does not provide any sustainable impact or health care application to help with emotional and physical health, or family reintegration.

If on holiday you want to stop by, without advance approval, to visit an orphanage, the facility does not ask you for relevant work experience, skills related to children's health care or teaching, background clearances, proof of credentials or take measures to prevent children from being alone with you. And these are major red flags of concern. This may be a facility that is not taking a child's care into full consideration or have their best interest in mind.

Sustainability Should be the Goal

In volunteer, not-for-profit and NGO work globally, sustainability is a big deal and for very good reason. When providing services in a community, passing out hugs and handouts is not going to make a lasting difference. Goals of the organization and program should include community and staff education and training. Before you commit to any volunteer abroad opportunity, read these tips for responsible volunteer consideration from The Child Safe Movement:

  • The organization is legally registered.
  • The organization has policies and procedures in place to protect children. Child protection policy should be based on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and provide a framework of principles, standards and guidelines to become aware, prevent and respond to abuse.
  • All staff and volunteers in the organization should be required to agree and abide by a Code of Conduct aimed at safeguarding the physical and mental well being of children.
  • The organization carries out background checks.
  • The best interest of beneficiaries should be your primary focus.
  • Skills and education will be provided to local staff.
  • That the volunteering program provided is sustainable for local organizations/communities.

How to Choose an Organization

Choosing an organization to work with is something that takes time. Look for an organization that has a good reputation among NGOs, non-profits, and within their professional community. If the organization provides care within the children's health care sector, ensure they are committed to the health and well being of all children, even more so with all of the documented abuses that exist under the guise of helping children through volunteer tourism. Safety and care of the children should be paramount to their work. They should have appropriate guidelines in place to ensure that all children involved in their projects are kept safe from all forms of harm, abuse and inappropriate treatment.  International programs should be developed to support children's health care and their welfare while creating sustainable programs which directly support their communities.

As mentioned earlier, they should require experience of all volunteers in their programs and projects. They should choose professional candidates who are qualified for the position in which they will perform their volunteer service. The organization should provide additional on site training, orientation and mentoring, as well as social-emotional preparation prior to attending the international program and support throughout the entire trip.

Volunteers should be observed at all times and never left alone with a child. The organization should limit the amount of time spent in any one center, health care facility, orphanage or child care center, so neither a volunteer nor child would develop any inappropriate attachment or form any type of bond.

Global Volunteer Program or Voluntourism

At a time when volunteer tourism is receiving lots of negative press and media exposure, it is important for those who wish to volunteer to do their due diligence and research in selecting any opportunity for which they would like to apply.

Choose a professional organization, not volunteer tourism. In reviewing published articles and information in the media, there are some practices in volunteering abroad which are not the best approach. In voluntourism, it is common practice that a fee is charged for anyone, no experience required, to become a volunteer, and the company operates as an individual, or for profit scheme with very little personal involvement or oversight of their volunteers. The volunteers arrive at the project and volunteer in their own way, completely unsupervised, not educated or trained. This can create a firestorm of issues and problems.

A program that does not require health care professionals be licensed, trained/educated, background checked, sign child health clearances, code of conduct forms/agreements and advocates for keeping children in institutionalized settings is not a program that should be associated with safe, sustainable and responsible volunteering abroad. Massage therapists and health care providers should focus their volunteer efforts with programs that support communities and create a sustainable difference!

Author's Note: The author of this article and the Liddle Kidz Foundation does not support, endorse or promote global/international outreach programs that do not follow specific guidelines in selection of professional health care volunteers, or ensure the safety, health, well being and care of the children. Children's safety and health should be paramount in a professional organization's work abroad.

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