The year is 2019 and the word ‘voluntourism’ is on every conscious traveler’s lips.

The term refers to the growing phenomenon amongst the world’s traveling community. People packing up their bags and taking international flights to some of the world’s poorest countries to carry out volunteer work, often on assignments they’ve paid to be a part of.

The argument here is that, voluntourism in itself can easily cause more harm than good. Orphanages are a prime example. These businesses (because that’s what they are now) exploit some of the world’s most vulnerable. Breaking up families and impairing a child’s ability to live and develop normally.

And what for?

Money- it’s a fully-fledged industry.

And because many well-meaning travelers from very different socio-economic backgrounds long to add these kinds of ‘experiences’ to their CV. Often these volunteers enter into a community knowing very little of it. Not understanding the culture or the way of life. There’s often a presumed understanding that these people are poverty stricken, therefore, they are need of help from those more fortunate.

This kind of misunderstanding leads to complex relationships between well-meaning volunteers (often from much higher and/or Western socio-economic backgrounds) and the local community who are forced into a position of eternal gratitude.

And so, the question has to be asked,

Is the volunteer doing this for their own spiritual gratitude? Or to genuinely make an impact on the world’s ever-growing fight against poverty?

As you can see, things get very complicated when it comes to volunteering and there’s many things to consider if you’re thinking about it.

But let’s not allow the cloud of ‘voluntourism’ to rain on our parade.

There is a very real, and very genuine need for skilled volunteer workers on projects all over the globe.

Ethical volunteering is simple

It involves volunteering your time (usually a long period over a shorter period), and doing so without any intention of pleasing yourself or for any personal gain.

It involves joining a program where the only intention is to provide help, without causing harm to local communities.

Sustainability

Check if the charity is sustainable in the long term and that local communities can really benefit from volunteer help, long after the project is over.

Can the local community be empowered permanently by the temporary work taking place?

Skill sets

There are many charities, both local and international that seek volunteers with professional skill sets that can get specific help to those in need at times of need. This is the best way to volunteer ethically. Offer a specific skill set.

Sought after skill sets include medical skills, teaching skills and building skills.

Meet Amy- Nurse and skilled volunteer

Amy is 31 years old and qualified as a registered nurse back in 2009. Amy completed a surgical rotation program in a busy Glasgow (Scotland) hospital before pursuing her career prospects across the Middle East including Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

Amy is not only mega skilled in surgical and critical care nursing, but she is also a nurse leader. Working in managerial roles and educating junior nurses with her vast array of valuable skills and knowledge.

Whilst working away from home, amongst new cultures and new environments, Amy fell in love with travel. She noticed over the years that her niche surgical skills could really be of value on a particular mission that one of her colleagues was involved in.

 

Hi Amy, can you tell us about the skilled volunteer mission you have been involved with?

Aloha Medical Mission is a Honolulu based non-profit volunteer organisation which provides free medical and dental clinics to the under-served people of Hawaii and those living in poverty around the globe.

The surgical mission I joined traveled to Dhankuta, Nepal where we provided much needed, non-urgent surgical procedures to the people of Dhankuta, absolutely free. For this wonderful remote community of approximately 26,000 people, it was the second time the mission had visited.

We were based in the local hospital and surgical procedures performed included gynecology, general surgery and dental. The people of Dhankuta, unfortunately do not have access to these kinds of procedures due to resources, lack of skilled workers and no means of paying for healthcare.

My friend and colleague Dr Eric Matayoshi (a well-seasoned volunteer surgeon), asked me if I wanted to join him on this mission as they needed skilled workers like me. I couldn’t turn it down.

Skilled volunteers are the backbone to Aloha Medical Mission’s success.

Tell us about your role on the surgical mission you joined

We were a skilled team of surgeons, dentists, anesthetists and nurses.

I took on the ‘recovery room’ with two fellow surgical nurses.  This room was just off the main room we used for surgery and consisted of 3 beds. We had limited space and supplies and so I had to quickly adapt to my new environment. My years working in the Middle East and my open mind have taught me how to mold myself into new environments and to adapt quickly into new cultures. Being mindful of waste was paramount. What struck me was the reminder of how basic nursing can be and how important basic medical skills are in environments that just don’t have access to them.

We were recovering patients of all ages, from toddlers to the elderly and so a quick refresh on pediatric assessment parameters was needed!

I soon got the hang of it and with the support of a very well-seasoned senior RN, I felt comfortable.

Tell us a little bit about how your day looked as a skilled volunteer

Once we had arrived and had a day to set up and plan out the operating room schedule, our typical day started at 7.30. We would have an early morning meeting to discuss the day going forward. This was a nice time for us to group and focus. We would discuss any issues or concerns, share praise and compliments to each other and overall, we ensured everyone was OK and ready for the day. The support we shared amongst each other was amazing.

After our morning meeting we would break off into our respective areas. In the recovery room where I was based, myself and our small team would stagger our start times. Once the cases started to flow out of the operating room it was all hands-on deck! As there were 4 operating tables running concurrently (all in the same room!) it meant there was no rest for the wicked.

The patient’s recovery room time was overall shorter than I am typically used to. If it was a simple case, no complications on the table, minimal blood loss and they were awake and alert, we moved them swiftly to the post operation ward where a team of nurses were on hand to take over the care.

We did, however, have some minor complications and one more concerning. One lady had come from a successful gynecological surgery. Post-surgery she had a large volume blood loss on the operating table. Due to the remoteness of this town and the simplicity and lack of resources at the hospital, there was no blood products available on hand. There is a blood bank in the nearest city but it takes time to get blood products from there. Without even hesitating, our mission leader checked her blood type (we could do this on-site) and found she had the same blood type as himself. He on the spot donated a unit of blood. A further two fellow mission volunteers also did the same.  I was blown away.  I unfortunately was not the right blood type to donate but we as a group were all willing to contribute.

Once I received the patient into the recovery room, she had received two blood units so far.  She looked pale and uncomfortable but she was tough, stoic and calm. It was time to give the final two units of blood and as I held the unit in my gloved hand, I could feel the warmth. I looked at the bag and suddenly realized just how precious it was.  My fellow recovery nurse Kara and I had to spike the bag to hang and give through a free flow giving set and our hands were trembling! We were being so over-cautious not to mess up.

Fortunately, we managed and got the blood running and the patient recovered without concern following a successful surgery.

The hospital was just across the road from our hotel which was very basic but comfortable and clean.  We shared rooms and had a small shower room with running, cold water. The hotel was run by a local family who were just wonderful.  Mum and daughter cooked breakfast lunch and dinner for us, mostly local food, delicious momos were my favorite! They also attempted a few more “American” inspired dishes like fries. My favorite was always breakfast with the freshest avocado I’ve ever tasted.  Delicious.

Staying with a local family is another great way to add sustainability into volunteering.

How has skilled volunteering impacted your thoughts?

 

I feel lucky to have learned not only more nursing skills (or at least refreshed on a few!) but I also feel like I have broadened my views on social skills like compassion, tolerance and resilience. This community of people in Dhankuta are inspiring as they care so much for each other, they look out for each other and they have so much love to give. I felt like their family when I was around them and the mutual respect among us was palpable.

Sustainable and skilled volunteering that really impacts and helps communities like these surgical missions do, are vital in the global fight against poverty.

I feel grateful I can use my vast experience and my valuable surgical nursing skills to not only help those need, but also to raise awareness, teach and help empower communities.

I’ve already signed up for the return mission in 2020!

Nurses are an essential part of the mission team and becoming a regular contributor adds to the sustainability of Aloha’s Medical Missions for years to come.

 

So, what do you think? Is volunteering for you? Do you have the skills to offer that can really make a difference?