The World Of Philanthropic Travel: Volunteering Abroad

Monday, December 28, 2009

All destinations have a dual nature. In Guatemala there is the Guatemala that is shown to tourists, and then there is the other Guatemala. In the Northern jungle region of the country, tourists marvel at Tikal, a breathtaking parked filled with ruins of Mayan pyramids. Not far from Tikal, in garbage dumps across the country, are the descendants of the Mayan kings who built these pyramids, young boys and girls working 12 hours a day to salvage recyclables that will pay for a meal, that will allow them to survive for another day, that will do nothing to break them out of the cycle of generational poverty.

Travelers spending enough time in third-world countries learn willingly (or reluctantly) is that for much of the world, life is tough. For many it is a struggle just to get through another day. In the West we have figured out food. It’s like breathing. We have never gone a day voluntarily without eating, and just as the air will always be there for our next breath, food will always be there for our next meal. When we ask what we will eat tomorrow, we’re thinking: Pizza Hut? Perkins? The Olive Garden? etc. . . For much of the third-world, it is the same question, but many struggle to answer it. What will I eat tomorrow? Will I eat tomorrow?

Tourists and travelers are often ill-equipped to deal with the difficult lives extending a pleading hand before them. We feel guilty. We want to help them. Sociologists from their ivory towers tell us that by giving beggars money we will be causing them more harm than good. It is the economical systems that need overhaul. By giving to beggars you will just be creating deep dependencies. Alms are just band-aids that will not address the deeply driven social woes that lead to poverty. Such thinking is good jabber in college classrooms, but when you find yourself face-to-face with pleading eyes, imploring for your help, it is never as cut and dried.

People avoid thinking about the world’s woes when they feel powerless to do anything about them. My boss, friend and mentor Patrick Atkinson, the founder of the Guatemalan development organization Nuestros Ahijados, has spent decades spreading the message that, “Most people want to help, most people can help in some way, but they just don’t know how.” For the next generation of travelers, traveling has become as much about what there is to see as it is about what can be done to help the natives of the countries they are visiting.

Over the past two years working with Nuestros Ahijados, I often see the best of humanity along side the worst human conditions. Every day I see forlorn, impoverished faces and the faces of tourists and travelers trying to reconcile the fact that they live better than 99% of the world. I see malnourished infants a few mouthfuls away from death. But then, I also see volunteers, spending eight hours a day working to nurse these children back to health.

In November of 2008, our organization opened a malnourished infant center. Because of a tight budget, we were banking on recruiting volunteers to carry the brunt of the workload. The result has been overwhelming. Families vacationing for two weeks, spring breakers here for a week, longtime travelers, study abroad students, and expats just passing through on their way north or south, have all showed up with admirable dedication.

They come to Guatemala for different reasons, but all end up helping us save lives. Philanthropic travel is the new black. In every developing country there are NGOs (non-government organizations) who need volunteers. Becoming involved in such organizations allows travel to be more than just seeing, but also doing. If you are going to be passing through a certain place, it’s easy to Google what organizations are there needing volunteers. Many travelers simply show up somewhere and ask around for organizations that need volunteers. Usually the people behind the front desk at hostels, or the teachers of language schools have a good idea of what organizations are out there.

From my experience in the NGO world, it is best to be weary of organizations that charge their volunteers a fee. Paying to volunteer is a bit of an oxymoron. Often these organizations simply appease tourists in an effort to give them the impression they are making a difference rather than focusing on how to make lasting impacts in the fight against generational poverty.

At our Casa Jackson Malnourished Infant Center in Guatemala, there is a moment in the course of saving a child that can cause grown men to tear up. It’s a single smile. Children enter our center so close to death that they no longer react to human touch. Their expressions are blank, and it seems that whoever used to live inside that body is no longer there. For some it takes days, others weeks, but on the road to recovery, there is a single moment when these children regain themselves, and for the first time in months, they smile. They smile and begin to laugh, and for those volunteers who have worked with them for hours a day to bring them to this point, the view is better than any panoramic landscape.

Instead of being disheartened by the ubiquitous inequality of the world while traveling, be encouraged that you can become part of the solution. There are many organizations that need volunteers, and whose only prerequisite is a dedicated heart. We all change the world, it’s only ever a question whether it was for better or worse and to what degree.  Be it time, talent, and treasure, there is something you can do right now. And now here’s my shameless plug: If you are passing through Guatemala and would like to help, or if you can’t think of how to spend your Christmas money, visit and we have some ideas for you.

By Luke Armstrong


About the Author

LukeArmstrongLuke Maguire Armstrong lives in Guatemala directing the humanitarian aid organization, Nuestros Ahijados. His book of poetry, iPoems for the Dolphins to Click Home About (available for sale on is especially enjoyed by people who “don’t read poetry.” (@lukespartacus)

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