Voluntourism: What It Means

Oct 10, 2018

The importance of helping others is impressed upon students at an early age, typically through community opportunities such as assisting at a soup kitchen, packing meals for youth in need, reading to or tutoring those starting or struggling to learn.

When volunteering involves travel it becomes voluntourism—and it helps students broaden their world view, as often noted in submissions to the Ripley Hunter “World Is a Classroom” essay contest offered by the SYTA Youth Foundation.

For hours I sat in the hot sun picking weed after weed. It felt like every time I plucked one weed, two more would just pop right up. Thousands of weeds later the job was done and the parking lot looked fantastic. The school it looked completely different; it was more inviting and fresh. I couldn’t help smiling, thinking of the expressions on the students’ faces when they would arrive at the school that August. It helped me realize that a small group of passionate people willing to make a difference can make a huge impact.
—Emma Grace O’Rourke, Schuylerville, New York

I recalled a little boy, no older than 8, with 30 pounds of wood strapped on his back as he made his way to the pueblo below, bringing fuel to his family. I began to really consider the implications of these stoves—about how inefficient they were and how the families of this community, and countless others throughout Guatemala, spent their days collecting wood in a process that was not only contributing to deforestation but to the decline of their own health. This was my first lesson on the link between poverty and its impact on health and the environment.
—Maddison Schink, Fort Collins, Colorado

After witnessing entire mountainsides of the lush cloud forest turn bare due to pesticide use on coffee farms, I realized just how much our planet suffers from the wrongdoings of production. Doña Flora spoke about children in the neighboring community enduring birth defects as a result of chemicals and my heart ached, wishing that consumers could recognize the effects of their seemingly innocent purchases. The power of a dollar is far-reaching and every time we buy a good we support the process, laborers, and techniques behind it.
—Natalie Reisman, Roslyn Heights, New York

Costa Rica stopped me dead in my tracks. It tugged me thousands of miles away from my family, throwing me on a plane with a Spanish group from school. It dragged me out of my comfort zone, forcing me to communicate in jagged Spanish sentences. It exhausted me, working in the dense, sticky air as part of our service. It was an extraordinary, indescribably fulfilling experience. I’ve discovered that the beauty in traveling is in the opportunity for growth and learning.
—Tessa Zakroczemski, Amherst, New York

To pursue voluntourism opportunities with your students, please work with a SYTA Member tour operator to help ensure your efforts are welcomed and will have a successful outcome for the community or venue being served. The help your students provide and the lessons they learn may be invaluable.

Written by Amy L Charles, Editorial Director for Teach & Travel.