Shifting the Paradigm of Sustainable Volunteerism; How One Little Girl Shattered My Worldview
One of Dorina Brown Travel’s Guiding Principles is that we value sustainability. I look for suppliers who are environmentally conscious, who work towards supporting their communities with well thought out initiatives and those who work to keep tourism dollars as local as possible. It’s not a principle I believe in because I think it sounds good or makes me feel good, but because of one little Jamaican girl.
Several years ago, pre Travel Agent days, I took a group to Jamaica on a Mission Trip.
Originally the plan had been to visit and volunteer at an Orphanage in Mexico. It was a location others in the congregation had been to multiple times and came highly recommended. We had to apply a year in advance because the demand from the public to volunteer there was so high. I was starting to pull together a trip where we drove down, and now, several months into meetings and organizing church stays across the Western USA coast, parents started expressing concerns regarding the safety of Mexico as a destination for our group due to a recent increase in the number of news articles making their way to Canada regarding the drug wars.
So, with only four months before our departure, I found myself sitting in my office late at night scouring the internet for alternatives. I found an organization in Jamaica with availability and put it forward to the group and parents agreed.
So in July of that year we boarded a plane and headed to the island for two weeks. The website nor subsequent emails with the organization were overly clear on the work we’d be doing, so we were going in blindly. In retrospect it fits the laid back culture of Jamaica quite well.
We landed in Kingston and our first stop was to an area of extreme poverty. In the area a church had just been built and we were introduced to the team who were on their way home. We were surrounded by children and their families and everything became this whirl. But I can tell you this - and I’m just as guilty - out came the cameras. It was so hard not to, you know? These kids were cute as all get up, and all of them WANTED their photo taken. Some of them wanted to take photos with my camera. And even more, they LOVED seeing the image of themselves in the review function. At the time, I thought nothing of it.
The next day, we were transported to the town we were going to be set up in in a Northern region. At the location, the organization was in the midst of building an orphanage. We were shown our lodgings. The ladies were in a dorm like space and the gentleman had mattresses on the floor of a second building not yet finished. There was a communal bathroom with showers, toilets and sinks and all the water came from a collection tank at the top of the hill, meaning no hot water and we had to use bottled water to brush our teeth. Because of that bathroom, I can cross “showering with frogs” and “peeing with cockroaches” off my bucket list. The cooks fed us incredibly amazing home cooked meals with locally sourced ingredients and we did our laundry in buckets.
Shortly after arriving, we learned that our primary task during our week would be to haul rocks and sand to the second floor of the main building that would later be turned into concrete. But our afternoons were up to us, and having wanted to volunteer at the orphanage in Mexico, we told our organization reps this and soon, they had a plan for our afternoons.
Our first stop was at a local infirmary. These were adults with complex medical or mental issues that their families were unable or unwilling to deal with. The complex was largely open air, in a bit of a horse shoe formation. Our group split up to go and visit with folks as we were able and I found myself sitting with a gentleman who had been hit by a car. His family, unable to deal with his injuries, had all but abandoned him and he lived here now without function in his legs. But when I asked him how he was, he told me that he couldn’t complain. His attitude and his story shook me and I left contemplating the complexities of gratitude.
The next day we visited a home for high needs children. The children in this home were non-verbal, physically they were differently abled, and required great care. What I noticed were two things - first and foremost was the smell. The smell was incredibly heavy and unpleasant. The second was how unclean the home was compared to what I as a Canadian would expect from such a facility and I found myself contemplating the complexities of standard of living. We greeted residents, who were mostly unresponsive, except for one girl who got up to dance with one of my youth.
And so our afternoons went.
And finally, near the end of our time, we were taken to a girls home. We were told the girls came from a variety of backgrounds - some were orphaned, some had committed crimes. But all were without homes. We entered the compound and were taken to an outside area, where the girls came out to us. A few played basketball and more were doing their nails with our youth - both painting and being painted.
Next to me a girl came and sat and that’s where she stayed during our entire visit. We didn’t speak much, if at all, but we sat together. She painted my nails at one point but spent the vast majority of time playing with my hair and my hands. There was a lot of (appropriate) physical contact from her as if she was drinking in touch. After two or three hours, we were given the nod that it was time to go and that was when she said the very words that pierced my heart. “Will you be back tomorrow?”
Those words hit like an atomic bomb and I can not express to you the heart break I felt when I had to look her in the eye and tell her no. Because the reality was we would never be back. We were here for these few short hours.
I’ve reflected a lot on that moment. Here I was, a foreigner, going into this community thinking I would “do good” and realizing that all I had done was turn these people we had gone to visit in the afternoons into a human zoo. How can I improve the lives of these children in two hours? What they need is connection and love and relationships rooted in longevity and stability. But I had brought a group and reduced the fundamental needs of the people we encountered into an exhibit.
It took me a very long time to process that realization.
And while my story is rooted in a Christian mission trip, I don’t want this to be something that folks think only happen to Christians. Secular volunteerism too infiltrates the vulnerable moments of people and communities without enough consideration on the negative impacts “doing good” can sometimes do.
Yes, I’ve thought about that girl a lot through the years and she stays with me. She’s made me re-think the concept of sustainable tourism, sustainable volunteerism, and what it means to be a global citizen.
I think, especially as North Americans, that we forget that life moves differently in other areas of the world. Traditions, beliefs, values, ways of life - they are a kaleidoscope with varying degrees of similarity and difference as you shift from one geographical region to another. Having traveled primarily in first world white nations of which my ancestors came from I had never had to challenge my own worldview and assumptions about the way the world worked before that trip to Jamaica. Being a global citizen and embracing sustainability can not rest on our own assumptions of what others in the world want or need, nor can we assume that as citizens of first world countries that we have the right answers. And we have to ask the question - is my role in supporting this endeavour/company/tour/hotel etc. helping or hindering the people of this area? And will my efforts and involvement serve and support this community or do they only serve and support my own self interests?
As our trip began to close, our youth asked us if we could return to the church we visited on that first day. They wanted to develop a program to deliver to the kids (akin to VBS for those of you who know what that means). The night before we were to return to the city, we sat and talked about the experience and what we all wanted, and we all agreed that this time, we’d leave our cameras in our bags.
If you'd like to find out more about the blog's topic, here are a couple of great articles relating to sustainability in tourism and volunteerism: