Two young girls

High school and school volunteer trips abroad in orphanages: why it is a bad idea

Taking part in a volunteer trip abroad whilst at high school is a great way for young adults to learn more about themselves and the world they live in. As well as giving them an opportunity to gain new skills and grow in confidence, it also provides a great chance to learn more about global citizenship. However, to do this well, attention must also be paid to the effect such trips have on local communities across the world - especially when it comes to volunteering with children in orphanages.

Across countries such as the USA, Australia and the UK, there are literally thousands of organisations offering volunteering programs overseas specifically designed for under 18s. These programs place a lot of emphasis on being structured, reliable and affordable - a perfect way for a teenager to take their first adventurous steps into the wider world. However, not all high school volunteer trips are as ethical or safe as they first appear.

One of the most popular activities to do on a school volunteer trip abroad is to spend time in an orphanage with children. What first appears as a fun and worthwhile thing to do, quickly becomes something to avoid when you dig a little deeper.

Why is spending time in an orphanage during a school volunteer trip harmful to children?

Although nearly always well-intentioned, volunteering in an orphanage poses serious harm to children in a few key ways:

1. It exposes children to abuse 

Volunteers are not always expected to complete a criminal records check before volunteering in an orphanage and so any previous criminal behaviour which would prohibit them from working directly with children cannot be identified. This means that child sex abusers are able to pose as volunteers in order to gain easy access to vulnerable children in countries across Africa, Asia or South America. Even when background checks are made, many orphanages and the countries in which they exist, do not have appropriately strong child protection systems in place in order to do something about abuse if it occurs.

2. It contributes to attachment disorders in children

Young children require stable and consistent care in order to develop healthily. Having a revolving door of volunteers who spend a short amount of time with a child, showing them affection and love only to then disappear, causes long-term damage to a child’s ability to form secure attachments which can last with them throughout their life.

It helps sustain the global orphanage industry

Over the past two decades the number of orphans in the world has been steadily decreasing, but the number of orphanages has been going up. We now know that around 80% of children in orphanages have one or both living parents, which begs the question why children who have families to care for them are in orphanages at all? As volunteering trips to orphanages have grown in popularity a demand for orphans and orphanages has been created. A practice now known as orphanage trafficking has begun in order to fill the places in orphanages across the world and earn corrupt orphanage owners a lot of money. It involves the active recruitment of children, usually from vulnerable families, through making promises that the child will have access to better education and health services if sent to live in an orphanage. On arrival at the orphanage, children are often abused, neglected and exploited. By volunteering or supporting orphanages abroad we help keep this practice going, meaning that more and more children are unnecessarily separated from their families.

Why is orphanage volunteering unsafe for high school students?

School students are very rarely expected to have any specific skills before participating in a volunteer trip abroad in an orphanage. This means they are often extremely unprepared for what they find, feeling anxious, stressed and completely out of their depth as they do their best to care for vulnerable children. With little to no prior training or experience, and in a country or culture which may not be very familiar, volunteering in an orphanage can be an extremely distressing experience.

Additionally, the emotional burden is huge if student volunteers witness or are told by a child about abuse taking place at the organage. If they decide to try and do something about it they may also be placing themselves in danger. Some orphanage owners, who have a financial incentive to make sure any claims of abuse do not get out, have been known to threaten volunteers.

How long is an appropriate amount of time to volunteer at an orphanage during a school trip?

School volunteer trips to orphanages can happen during term time or in the school holidays. They usually are one of the following:

  • A standalone project, often lasting a few weeks
  • A visit to an orphanage that the school sponsors or has a pre-existing relationship with
  • A component of a longer program where the student partakes in an outdoor expedition or challenge, followed by a few days of ‘community action’

Regardless of the amount of time spent at an orphanage, the harm to children is the same. By supporting orphanages, we contribute to the growth of a global industry profiting off the exploitation of children. Read about better care alternatives for children.

Can I volunteer at a ‘good’ orphanage during a school volunteer trip?

Volunteers often ask if there is ever is a situation when volunteering in an orphanage is a good thing to do. Surely not all orphanages can be bad? Although there is a definite spectrum when it comes to orphanages, with some being hugely corrupt and others genuinely trying to do what is right for children, it is important to understand that there is no such thing as a ‘good’ orphanage for children.

Over eighty years of research has proven that children who grow up in orphanages suffer damage and delays in nearly every aspect of their emotional and physical development. Read more about why orphanages are harmful for children. This is why we no longer have orphanages for children in countries such as Australia, USA and the UK. So, regardless of how well-run, clean or well-resourced an orphanage is, it will never replace a loving family for a child. Instead of volunteering at an orphanage there are other more effective things we can do for children abroad.

Why would my school organise a volunteer trip to an orphanage if it wasn’t ethical or safe?

When it comes to organising high school volunteer trips abroad, staff tend to do it in one of two ways. Either they organise a trip directly with a community member or group in a particular country, or - and this option is probably more common - they organise the trip via an organisation that specialises in volunteer experiences for teenagers. Seeing as the majority of volunteer-sending countries don’t actually have orphanages anymore themselves, the general public tend to not be aware of the harm they cause children. The vast majority of the time, school teachers organising trips for their students simply do not know that the practice of volunteering in an orphanage should be avoided. Just because your volunteer trip is organised by your school and done with the best of intentions does not mean it is a safe or ethical program.

If I can’t volunteer at an orphanage can I fundraise for one instead?

Governments across the world have agreed to move away from orphanage care in the knowledge that it is not the best option for children, but these efforts are being undermined by the continued support for orphanages coming from well-intentioned volunteers and donors in other countries. Whether volunteering, giving money or fundraising on behalf of an orphanage, you are supporting the practice of separating children from their families. People are more likely to give to an orphanage than to a family-based care initiative, which means that individuals willing to exploit children for money will continue to do so. Volunteering and donating are both excellent things to do. Just make sure you’re supporting organisations that are working to keep children in families and not in orphanages.

UCAS Points and University Credit

Lots of young people decide to undertake voluntary work in an orphanage whilst still at high school or during a gap year to earn UCAS points or University Credit. However, more and more Colleges and Universities are now becoming clear on the harms of this type of volunteering. Check out this petition signed by Universities across the UK pledging not to support orphanage volunteering! 

Are you a parent of a high school student?

When it comes to partaking in a volunteer trip abroad, your child’s safety and well-being is obviously paramount. Quite understandably, you want them to have a fantastic experience, where they get to learn about a new culture and understand a bit more about the world they live in. But volunteering in an orphanage is not like travelling or getting involved in an outdoor education program. It involves real children who are vulnerable to the experiences they are subjected to by growing up in an institution away from their family. In order to make sure our young adults fully understand the complexities of the problems faced around the world, we need to encourage them to think not just how they can help, but how they can help in the best ways possible.

Here are a few things to consider:

Choosing a great school volunteer trip abroad

Just because you shouldn’t volunteer in an orphanage definitely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t volunteer at all whilst at high school or during your summer vacations! When done right, volunteering abroad can be an excellent thing to do. Read our guidance below to help you make the best choice:

  • Check out our essential volunteer checklist that tells you all you need to know in terms of choosing an ethical, responsible volunteer abroad program. If your school offers a volunteer trip, check it against this list before deciding if you want to get involved or not. Better yet, talk to you school about this checklist so they can make sure they’re aware of what to look out for.
  • If you’re interested in volunteering with children, check out this page which talks you through the options. 
  • If you want to help tackle orphanage trafficking and make sure children get to grow up in families, check out this page on alternatives to orphanage volunteering.
  • Remember that you don’t have to leave your country or even your community to build skills, have new experiences or have interesting things to put on your CV. You can volunteer locally or join a social action group. But if you want to explore somewhere different, have a think about booking onto a responsible travel trip instead.