Why you shouldn’t volunteer in orphanages

Having had first-hand experience in working with and supporting the Nzirambi orphanage in Uganda, Social Impact Traveller doesn’t recommend volunteering in an orphanage. Read on to find out why we think there are more meaningful ways to help kids globally.

I have been involved with the Nzirambi orphanage in Uganda for more than a decade ago, having first gone there to meet my friend, Monica Kahindo’s, family. For me, showing up at an orphanage 10 years ago became a much more complicated – and long –  journey than I ever expected.

Nzirambi founders Dorothy and Milly with Monica

I was working with Unicef Canada at the time and well versed in international children’s rights issues. Through Unicef, I travelled to Sierra Leone on mission visiting therapeutic feeding centres, schools and hospitals and so, prior to visiting the orphanage, I had this perspective in mind. The orphanage is run by teh family of my close friend, Monica Kahindo. I spent much of my time there with my friend’s mother, Milly, and her aunt, Dorothy, as well as the House Mothers and older students.

I have kept in touch with the students I support – most of them have my phone number and connect with me in social media. Anytime I tell one of their stories or show their photos, I ask their permission. Still, I struggle with the issues around being involved in an orphanage and I keep the children’s (especially the younger ones) vulnerability always at the top of my mind.

I do not encourage people to volunteer in an orphanage.

These children are vulnerable. Many have attachment issues.

Of the orphanage children, the majority are there because their mothers died in birth and their fathers would not, or could not, take care of them. Some were completely abandoned. Many by scared, teenage mothers. Many by families who feel they don’t have the means to care for the baby. I’ve seen issues of abandonment first-hand. One child was mute when he arrived and for some years after. Then one day, he started to speak. It is believed that the trauma of the separation from his mother silenced him all that time. Other infants cling to the House Mothers. These children are extremely vulnerable.

Here’s one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned when it comes to people going to the orphanage:

Travellers come and go, but the kids are always there — and they become attached to the people they meet. And travellers always leave them. The issue of abandonment becomes cyclical. 

Consider the real impact you can make.

Another key reason that I encourage people not to go is that it costs nearly $1500 CAD to fly to Uganda from Toronto – that’s almost a year of tuition for a student in college or university there. The orphanage does not need help in the daily chores, they employ locals as House Mothers to do those jobs. You wouldn’t want to volunteer in an orphanage and put a local woman out of a job, would you? What the kids truly need is funding to help them break the cycle of poverty that they get caught in.

The Nzirambi model

What I love about the Nzirambi orphanage is the model they are working to create. It’s not an institution. The orphanage founders worked hard to create opportunities for the children to be reintegrated with their extended families with the support of sponsors to ease the financial burden. Children typically do best when they are surrounded by their community.

But this is not possible for all of the children, and so House Mothers are hired to care for and love the children as if they are their own. Today, there are 70 kids at the orphanage, and another 90 are supported by orphanage funders (mostly in the UK through NOTDEC). These children have been relocated to their villages because they have extended family.

Rather than considering myself as a volunteer at an orphanage, my approach is to try to empower the students. I see them as youth who have faced incredible challenges, but they have so much potential. The very first student, Veronica,  inspired me to start fundraising. Recently, she graduated as a lawyer in her country. This is a young woman who grew up in the orphanage from the time she was one after her mother died of AIDS, but with support she was able to break a pattern of poverty. She is an inspiration.

I still wrestle with all of the complicated factors involved in orphanages. But, I know that the children need support – so I will keep wrestling and considering all of these ethical issues.

If you want to help, the best thing to do is make a donation.

Read more about the Nzirmabi Education Fund.

Read what Karen Leiva had to say about this on the award-winning blog, Breathe Dream Go.