The truth is, you can’t make a lasting difference in a community in one week; speaking from experience, you’ll barely have time to take it all in … More importantly, real change happens over time.
As much as we sometimes hate to admit it, as short-term-volunteers we’re part of a parade of volunteers coming in on the heels of another group, sure to be followed by a new wave of smiling arrivals upon our departure, and this constant turnover can be more detrimental than helpful if we don’t use our short-term teams in the right ways.
Please hear me out on this one – I’m not saying that your trip is necessarily a waste of time or resources – but I do think that we need to conscientiously un-pack what happens over the course of a week in Haiti with short-term teams, and maybe start thinking about ways of doing things differently.
Case 1: The Children’s Home
Your visit likely includes some crazy-fun out-of-the-box activities for the kids. You’ve planned games, brought gifts, and scheduled out all kinds of extracurriculars – it’s going to be an intense, high-activity, tons-of-fun week. And that’s great.
But imagine just for a moment that you’re back at home with your kiddos; do you remember that super-fun aunt or uncle, maybe a close friend, who would come over and rile the kids up, load them up on sugar and tons of attention, and then go home at the end of the day? Despite an all-around fantastic day, it’s now on you to help your kids settle back into whatever your “normal” routine looks like; to explain that no, we don’t usually get sweets before dinner, and no, we can’t go to the local water park every day for the rest of the summer, etc., etc.
When we load up our exhausted short term teams at the end of a week in Haiti (headed home for a long hot shower and some nice long sleeps,) we’re effectively leaving our Haiti-partners with this very same task – and asking the kids to adjust to a constant cycle of quick highs, followed by an abrupt shift back to an often less-than-ideal normal.
Again, please hear me say that I’m not necessarily against a team visiting this kind of setting, but I do think we need to measure out how much of the fun is for us, versus the toll our visit takes on the day-to-day caregivers who not only serve as host, but are also the ones who have to bring everything back together once we leave. How can we be helping them provide long-term, effective, high-quality care? How can we make their lives a little bit easier, while also enjoying quality time with the kids we’re visiting?
Case 2: Medical Missions
To steal a metaphor from Morgan, short term missions are band-aids on a wound that needs much more serious treatment. Another one of our learners, Aslan N., came to a similar conclusion when she realized she was seeing the same faces over and over again at the clinic where she used to volunteer short-term:
“[We were] essentially taking care of the same people every time. We were pulling the sick people out of the raging waters, but ignoring the fact that we were sending them on their way to walk across a broken bridge, only to fall in and need rescuing again.”
It’s not that the care they provided during their short term trips wasn’t a service to the local community, injuries were addressed, and band-aids were placed, but the truth is that short-term efforts do not translate into real long-term solutions for the problems that people regularly confront in Haiti (like reliable access to quality health-care…)
So where does that leave us?
I know it’s easy to be the person who just stands to the side and points out all the short-comings of a system or effort (And I can’t stand that person any better than you can, so I certainly don’t want to be her!) but I bring these things up because, despite what I’ve outlined above, I do see a place for short term teams in Haiti, I just think we need to think about them differently.
We need to think about how our short-term trips play into a long-term effort, and do everything we can to make sure that our short-term visits energize and reinvigorate the people carrying out the long-term battle.
It’s the long term volunteers in concert with the communities where they work who are best prepared to make a difference, and so the best way we can make a difference during a short-term trip is to support them. Your presence can help support the people who are there long-term, versus leaving them drained after a week of playing host to you and your team.
So in addition to the regular activities you have planned for the week, consider setting aside time to be of service to these people, in whatever way you can (Not sure what would be most helpful? Ask them!)
Here are some ideas we’ve heard from long-term volunteer friends:
Consider organizing your team to do simple tasks like the dishes, or watching their kids so they can run out and do some errands, give them a date-night with their spouse, if they’re religious, you can offer to come alongside them in prayer or fellowship, offer them something unique of yourself (Do you play an instrument? Maybe everyone would enjoy a quiet evening just listening to you play! Maybe you’re a certified yogi – offer to lead a session!)
It seems counter-intuitive, but sometimes the best thing you can do for the kids at the orphanage you support, or for the people who receive care from the medical mission where you volunteer, is to take care of the people behind the scenes, the people who don’t always get to do the fun short-term stuff because they’re busy doing the nitty-gritty tasks, day-in-and-day-out, long-term.
Finally, as a short-term volunteer, you should also be looking into if and how you could make a long-term commitment – could this trip be the start of your involvement long-term?
P.S. Long-term volunteers – what do you think? How can short-term teams be most helpful to your mission during their stay?
by Erin Nguyen on August 13, 2015
All Photography associated with this article including but not limited to feature image and additional media belongs to Amy Liang Photography. Used with permission.