FEATURE ARTICLE 2
VolunTourism Case Study: Two Sides, One Story
This is truly a case study from which all of us, hopefully, can learn a great deal. Whether you are a VolunTourism Operator or a VolunTourist, an NGO or a community resident, an Academic or a member of the Media, this is an unfolding story. It details how viewpoints vary; how communications are critical; and how hospitality and customer service are essential. Some "VolunTourists" describe the services provided by Volunteer Visions as lacking, in some cases, grievously. Yet, it is important to give "voice" to both sides. Thus, I have included the responses of Lawrence Woo, Founder & Director of this enterprise, to the letters presented herein.
In the last issue of The VolunTourist, I mentioned that I had received a letter that had deeply influenced my thinking and caused me to review my philosophy on how to present the "Dark Side of VolunTourism." To say that this letter and the others included in this article have been sobering would represent only a fraction of my thought process to date. But what was it about the first letter that is to follow these opening remarks that really grabbed my attention?
The SINCERITY of the writer.
I have seen "flaming" on the internet, but most of what I have seen doesn't come across with any core sincerity. The "flame thrower" is ranting and raving about something in an attempt to "score" something - higher recognition on search engines is certainly one possibility. In the case of the "Diary Of An Angry Volunteer," however, the thing that moved me was the sincerity coupled with what I perceived to be a series of internal questions that created a hesitation to share:
- Is this the right thing to do, to express myself in this way?
- Do I really have the right to do so?
I will place the onus squarely on you to gage the sincerity of the authors' respective remarks below. It should be noted that one of the authors, Jessica Green, expressed her desire to have her name listed. In order to maintain balance in this article, the responses of Lawrence Woo, Founder of Volunteer Visions, are included in sidebars along the way. I have also included the remarks of a Mystery VolunTourist who traveled with Volunteer Visions in late October.
Of course, questions will abound for many of you, as they did for me, after you peruse these letters. Rather than offer some trite remarks at the end of the article, for those interested in expressing their thoughts and opinions, please send us an email.
"Diary Of An Angry Volunteer"
The following letter was the first that I received in reference to the services provided by Volunteer Visions:
"As a college student, the idea of volunteering abroad always appealed to me. I heard inspiring stories from a friend who taught in China, I had met various Peace Corps volunteers, and my own roommate was training to do AIDS education in Africa. Being an avid volunteer in the US, I was ready to hop into the next plane and begin my own volunteer adventure. Unfortunately, I knew that programs could be absurdly expensive. Yet as the final month of my senior year drew nearer, I decided that this was something I really wanted to do. I had a free month during the upcoming summer, maybe the only free month in the next decade of my life. So I jumped on the opportunity and began relentlessly searching for a "cheap" volunteer program.
"It wasn't easy, but after hours of googling and countless e-mails, I managed to find a relatively inexpensive organization. Three days after graduation I was on my way to a rural town in Costa Rica to start volunteering. I was thrilled to finally be there and the first couple of days were great. I was living close to the beach, the other volunteers were really nice and fun, and the 3 directors were young and laid-back. But as soon as the work started, things began to fall apart. Online I had signed up to be a "community development" volunteer. The website described this as helping the local hospital and volunteering with disabled children. But in reality there was no community development in the town, no kids with disabilities, no hospitals, nothing that the website said. Instead I was assigned to be an English teacher. They pretty much gave me a classroom full of kids (who spoke no English) and told me to teach them. The situation annoyed me because if I had known I was going to teach I would've prepared lesson plans at home. Other "community development" volunteers were just as upset, especially since we didn't receive any guidance or suggestions to aid us. I was clueless and "winging" my lessons everyday.
"While the directors lived in a nice beach house, the dorms for the volunteers were deteriorating daily and bordering inhumane. I went a couple of days with no running water and over a week without a working toilet or shower. There were no fans, huge leaks and major flooding. I brought up problems to them but it took several days before anything got checked out. Some things never got fixed. In the end, my roommates and I requested to move to a host family because our toilet was still broken and the smell was unbearably disgusting. Other volunteers checked into hotels because their dorms were flooded with dirty toilet water. People started worrying about mold and diseases that could spread from the unhealthy conditions.
"The living situation made me suspicious about the budget. I thought most of our program fee went to our dorm cost but there was no way a crappy apartment in Costa Rica cost that much. What exactly was our fee going to? It was clear that no money was allocated to help the kids. We were doing a day camp and they didn't provide us with any materials (all supplies were donated by other volunteers). They didn't even bother to buy a first aid kit. We also had to pay for our own bus fare to go to our placements. It sounds small but $2 a day can add up over 4 weeks and they never warned us about that additional cost. I finally asked the directors to explain the budget. Immediately I saw that it made no sense. For example they told me a portion of our fee was allocated to "volunteer dinners and outings" but they never bought me a single meal or took me out while I was there. They also said a portion was allocated to transportation and pick up costs. However, we had to pay for our own transportation from the airport to the town in addition to the program fee. The only cost could have been the taxi ride from the office to the dorms, which was maybe $5. A big chunk was due to "marketing and advertising", which supposedly included the website and the pamphlets that I never saw. Those numbers also seemed like exaggerated BS. Then they mentioned that they were hiring the designer of the Victoria's Secret website to upgrade their own website, in attempt to appeal to their main demographic of women. I had naively assumed that the organization was a non-profit, but clearly it wasn't. The directors confirmed this, saying that they never claimed to be a non-profit because they were an agency. They said none of the money was donated to the projects. The organization was a business and they were profiting from it.
From The "Diary Of An Angry Volunteer"
"My advice to future volunteers is to do your research and don't be afraid to be really thorough. I neglected to ask if they were a non-profit and when the organization started. I also should have requested a detailed budget and a breakdown of the program fee."
"Just as I thought I couldn't get more agitated, one of our 3 directors, the volunteer coordinator, quit out of the blue. Admittedly, she was a terrible coordinator, but they overworked her to the point that she had an ulcer while I was there. It was disheartening because she was the only person who talked to the volunteers or even volunteered herself. The other 2 barely uttered a word to us. Since she had organized everything for the volunteers, the remaining 2 directors didn't know what the hell was going on. It was a week of complete disarray. When I talked to her later, she explained that she was misled, there was obviously no community development in the town, and the organization was definitely NOT a not-for-profit. She hinted that the founder was making a lot of money from this organization. I didn't know the entire story and she didn't elaborate. I just knew that the whole organization was ridiculous. During that time, the directors hired a new intern and she quit after working for a week. (To mention even more history, this organization only started in May 2007. The founder of our organization used to work for another volunteer organization, but he got into a fight with the leader of that organization. So he decided to start his own group)
"Throughout all the chaos, what really angered me was this feeling that they just didn't care. Back in the US, I've seen volunteer directors put all their sweat and energy into a project. I've been through endless meetings and fundraisers all in attempt to create some effective change. I was used to people who make a cause their whole life. Yet the founder of this group didn't volunteer at all. (I'm not exaggerating; he explicitly said, "I don't volunteer") Moreover, he didn't even try to get to know the volunteers or help them out. From my experience, he pretty much surfed all day. When I brought up issues to him, he showed that he was unconcerned and he would ignore me. He hired his staff through Craig's List so he didn't even meet them until they came. (Which is why the new intern was really bad with kids and quit. She told me she just wanted any job by the beach.) He bragged that his work day was waking up late and answering some e-mails and phone calls, because he didn't like working that much. I was stunned that he actually said that out loud. "My advice to future volunteers is to do your research and don't be afraid to be really thorough. I neglected to ask if they were a non-profit and when the organization started. I also should have requested a detailed budget and a breakdown of the program fee. Although I asked for alumni contact info, the contacts they gave me said the program was great and wonderful. Of course, now I see that they would only give out e-mails of people who are sure to say good things. (Also, when I saw the Facebook group for the organization, I assumed all of the 300 plus members were previous volunteers and that encouraged me. But now I realize that the program only started in May, so it's not possible that all of those people were past volunteers. In fact, I'm really confused as to who all those people are...I'm guessing they are random friends of the directors.) The main reason I picked this group was because it was cheaper than others. But I guess you get what you pay for. And with the cost of meals and bus fare, it's not much cheaper than other programs. I don't regret my month abroad. It was incredible to immerse myself in a new culture and experience Costa Rica, a country I've grown to love. The kids were amazing and I've made some really good friends through the program. But I've seen the downside of volunteering.
"I worked hard for my money and I'm guessing it went to a nice beach house, surfing lessons and partying money. It's hard to tell what an organization is truly like until you actually get there. As the trend of volunteer vacations grows, I hope we can create better resources to help potential volunteers decide where to invest their time and money."
Letter Number Two
"While I loved Costa Rica and the children I taught, I had a negative experience with Volunteer Visions. I had talked to the director over the phone before hand, trying to became as prepared as possible before I left. However, there were many things I was told would happen or would be covered in the costs that were not actually the case once I arrived. These are some of my examples,
"I had to take a 20-minute bus ride to my placement, the bus fare was supposed to be included, but it was not at first. It took a couple weeks, and my consistent verbal complaints and physical presence in their office (which was the director's home) demanding this be honored, and it finally was.
"As for the living conditions, I was told not to expect a four star hotel, when what I got was an upgrade from camping outside. We were also guaranteed our own private bedrooms with locks on the doors, which neither were the case. Some of the rooms had 3 to 4 beds each, and all of the locks on the bedroom doors were not functioning. I was in the bottom apartment which was leaking, what we believe was sewage, had days with no water (after some time, they finally put us up in hotel rooms on these days), and at times, the entire place was flooded. Our apartments had louvered style windows, there were many panes of glass were missing, and stray cats and other large bugs found their way inside.
"I was also told we would meet once or twice a week for an organized group dinner or event. Which also was not the case. The volunteers planned their own excursions, or went through the local language school or organized weekly events. We rarely had any contact with the organization; we did not have phones available to us in the apartment either. The first day I arrived, I was left on my own after about an hour of verbal introduction and slept alone in the apartment, because of this I experienced a high level of culture shock because they did not take any steps to help me settle into this new and very different culture.
"I was under the impression that part of the money I paid to volunteer would be put into our project placements, in my example, to the school I taught English in. In reality, we were given no supplies and no instruction of how to teach a classroom of children. Volunteer Visions even refused to provide us a few dollars here and there in order to buy supplies like flour for creative projects, or supplies for a first aid kit, and the students never had soap to wash their hands.
"When I arrived there were three people working for Volunteer Visions, and a new person in training. After the first week, one individual quit, and so did the new trainee. They could not stand the way they were being treated by the director, who placed all of the work on everyone else’s shoulders, and did not give some employees a day off in at least 6 weeks. Sadly, these two were the ones who treated the volunteers the best.
"Any time a volunteer went to speak about the issues we experienced, it was clear the people running the organization did not care, at all. They had our money, and if we wanted to, we could leave, they did not care about us or the children we were there working to help. I was very unhappy with this type of treatment, especially when we are there, paying to volunteer to help others.
"After two weeks, I was able to live with a family on the same street as the Volunteer Visions apartment. This was a great choice that completely enhanced my volunteering experience in Costa Rica, I was well taken care of and looked after there, it made all the difference. Towards the end of my placement, and with almost all of the volunteers going forward with their problems about volunteering, Volunteer Visions did make many changes, making it better than it was. However, I would not recommend using them again in the future.
"Despite the problems I encountered with Volunteer Visions, I had a truly amazing and life enhancing experience in Costa Rica. I loved the experience of travel and volunteering so much that I’m planning to do it again this year in Africa and Thailand. However, this time I will definitely screen the volunteer organization I choose to use more strictly."
LAWRENCE WOO'S RESPONSE
Letters One & Two
I have had the opportunity to take a look at the newsletter that you published following our last correspondence and wanted to let you know that we applaud your attempt to initiate programs such as the "Mystery Voluntourist" program. I strongly agree that such programs must be implemented in order to inform potential volunteers about the integrity of volunteer organizations and to ensure that they are making educated decisions when researching volunteer programs.
With regards to the two letters from our past volunteers, it's been four months since their completion of our program and we have taken drastic measures since then to hire trained personnel and implement a comprehensive volunteer management and coordination program. These measures have been taken in order to ensure that volunteers are receiving the service and care that they deserve. Our journey towards creating an enjoyable but more importantly, a respected volunteer program will not stop today. We will continue to reassess our programs and use feedback from volunteers to improve our program.
I stand by our mission statement which is to provide affordable volunteer placements without sacrificing the quality of our programs. Actions speak louder than words, so I hope to one day receive a "Mystery Voluntourist" so that we can demonstrate our newly found credibility not merely through words but by our service and commitment to our volunteers.
Volunteer Visions - Director
Office. +330.871.4511 ( USA)
Office. +506.656.0373 ( Costa Rica)
Fax: +330.249.2176 ( USA)
Letter Number Three
I received a letter in response to "VolunTourism: Maintaining Its Integrity" which was published in the last newsletter. To see the letter and my response, review this issue's Unxpected.
A Mystery VolunTourist Report
Copyright © Bob Kolesar, All Rights Reserved
In his response letter to me regarding the "Diary Of An Angry Volunteer" and Letter Number Two posted above, Lawrence Woo expressed:
The following bullet points were sent to me by an individual who agreed to be a Mystery VolunTourist during placement at Volunteer Visions:
LAWRENCE WOO'S RESPONSE
Letter Three & The Mystery VolunTourist Report
Thanks for letting us respond to your theses stories. I have followed up with my local coordinator and staff in Costa Rica regarding the stories that you have presented and I will address each story on a case by case basis:
Jessica and Jeff Green were volunteers who were signed up to participate in teaching and construction & renovation respectively. During orientation, Jeff notified my coordinator that he had a back injury and that he had no intentions of participating in the construction project. My local coordinator was a bit bewildered by the response as one would not expect someone with a pre-existing back problem to choose to participate in a construction project. In response this request, my coordinator offered to place him in other less intensive projects that would not effect his back adversely and he declined to try these placements and requested a refund.
Jessica at the time was taking Spanish language courses at the local language school in preparation for her teaching placement, but following her husbands decision to not participate in the construction placement due to his pre-existing back condition, decided to cancel her placement as well. Neither of them attended a single day at their volunteer placement and requested a refund based upon a pre-existing back injury that had been effecting Jeff prior to his arrival in Costa Rica.
I'm not quite sure about the logic behind their decision to apply for the volunteer program in the first place, but apparently they have taken great effort to denigrate and defame our organization based upon a situation that was out of our control.
As for XXXXX, I am attaching the e-mail correspondence that we had with the volunteer that arrived on the same day as XXXXX at the turtle conservation project (I have purposefully deleted e-mail addresses and the name of our partner in Costa Rica to respect their privacy):
Dear XXXX and XXXX
I received feedback from both of you regarding your arrival into Punta Mala. You both indicated that no one seemed to know you were arriving nor was there to meet you. I have since followed up with the coordinator of _______ and he assured me that at the camp both XXXX and XXXX knew you were coming, were there to meet you, speak English and provided the orientation.
I am concerned because obviously the accounts are different, and regardless of what the staff at Punta Mala did, neither of you felt welcomed or taken care of. I would be interested to know what we could change to make future volunteers feel more secure at the beginning of their placement. I'm not sure if it is a cultural difference or a lack of communication, but obviously whatever the ______ staff felt they provided was not sufficient.
If you have a moment I'd appreciate your input. I'm dedicated to improving this matter and thank you for your time.
Volunteer Visions Application Team
www.VolunteerVisions.org <http://www.volunteervisions.org >
Office: +330.871.4511 (USA)
Office: +506.656.0373 (Costa Rica)
Thank you for following up with this. Very interesting that we seem to have different accounts as to what occurred on my arrival day. XXXX and XXXX did arrive about two hours after XXXX and I arrived and were absolutely wonderful and did provide an orientation that evening. I have no complaints whatsoever with XXXX and XXXX. However, both XXXX and I were told that there would be someone waiting at the casa de las guardias and there was not. Furthermore, when we did figure out where we were supposed to go, the people who were at the Punta Mala site (the cook, rangers, and a few others who I do not know who they were), did not know we were coming and did not speak English. When XXXXX and XXXX arrived they also said they were not told we would be there. Clearly there is some miscommunication somewhere along the lines.
Despite the confusion of our arrival, my time at Punta Mala was truly remarkable and I am sad to leave.
I hope that these e-mails demonstrate how 2 people who participated in the same project can have drastically different accounts of the same project. It's important to keep in mind that we do work in developing countries and that at times there can be miscommunication between our office and our partners. But as is evidenced by the e-mail, we are constantly following up with our volunteers and monitoring the performance of our partners in order to minimize the occurrence of these incidents.
If anyone has questions regarding any of the comments that have been published in this newsletter, please do not hesitate to contact us by phone: 330-871-4511 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org and we would be more than happy to answer any of your questions.
Volunteer Visions - Director
Office. +330.871.4511 ( USA)
Office. +506.656.1061 ( Costa Rica)
Fax: +330.249.2176 ( USA)
David Clemmons, Publisher/Editor
If you have anything that you would like to add in reference to the letters above, the comments of Lawrence Woo, or just have some general responses that you would care to offer, please do send us your thoughts: vt[at] voluntourism.org
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