I’ve been following Adam (@travelsofadam) of Travels of Adam on Twitter for some time now and earlier this week, I noticed a conversation between Adam and Sallie (@pandpvolunteer) of People and Places: Responsible Volunteering. The conversation was about volunteering in orphanages around the world and how to choose volunteer placements responsibly. I shared my experiences of living in a children’s home when I was younger and how there was a constant stream of visitors which made us feel quite violated. Sallie encouraged me to tell my story and below is my article that was first published as Volunteering: A (Former) Child’s Perspective of Visitors to the Home at the People and Places blog.
When I was sixteen and my brother eleven, we were taken out of home by social services and put into a group home. Adoption and fostering were not an option because our mother still played an active role in our lives and so I stayed there until I finished school and my brother until he moved back home at the age of fifteen.
My experiences in the home were overwhelmingly positive. I was finally able to get the nourishment, clothing, material and emotional support to finish school. The same charitable trust paid for me to go to university and everything from fees, books, accommodation and pocket money were paid for. A generous donation from an anonymous benefactor also enabled me to purchase my first car and put down a deposit on my first home.
The cycle of poverty was truly broken but that is not why I am talking to you today. I’d like to talk about visitors to the home and the often negative experiences we had of them. Because my gratitude far exceeds my desire to complain, I will frame this in terms of what we can learn about these experiences.
Let me start off by saying that my home had a lot of visitors. The number of children in the home was understandably large in the post-World War II period and many of those people returned to the home as adults with their children and grandchildren. In addition, the committee was comprised of old residents and members of the community were welcome during religious occasions, festivals and special events.
Be careful what you say to vulnerable children and the labels you apply to them. During one festival, a woman I had never seen before was standing with her very young daughter when a bell went off. The child asked what the bell was for and the mother replied that it was to tell the orphans that it was time to eat. Out of all the children in the home at that time, only one was actually an orphan while the rest of us had living but dysfunctional parents. I cannot begin to tell you how offended I was by being called an orphan, so much so that my indignation still feels fresh over 20 years later.
You may well be volunteering in countries where orphans are still prevalent due to war or political upheaval but the message is that you need to be very careful of the labels you apply to vulnerable children, especially as they fight very hard to establish their identity in a group setting.
Be aware that vulnerable children may have difficulty trusting you and respect their boundaries. There were a lot of visitors that used to come and visit us on weekday evenings. Some came with chocolates and sweets, some just came to spend time with us. For the most part we could tolerate regular visitors because we got to know them but for some reason, some of them I liked and some of them I just didn’t. The ones that made me uneasy (and that sense hasn’t diminished over time) were the ones who were too familiar, who did not respect my boundaries or personal space.
What time does tell me is that these particular people were mostly harmless, that they meant well, but back then it made me uncomfortable. One man bought me jewellery for a dance once, because I wasn’t able to purchase it myself. I could never shake the feeling that he expected something back, even though he never asked for it.
As a mature, responsible adult, you have to respect boundaries but most importantly, you have to make the right decisions in terms of what is appropriate behaviour. As an adult, I would say that an adult male buying a teenage girl jewellery isn’t appropriate because of the power dynamic it exposes between them. This is why responsible institutions are so keen to vet visitors and volunteers nowadays.
Respect that children might not want the sanctity of their home broken. Many of the visitors that were brought around the home were potential donors or benefactors (I am told that I met mine, even though I wasn’t told about it at the time). I don’t think I will ever be able to shake the feeling of being an animal in a zoo as people were lead around to stare at us and some were even so bold as to try touch us or hug us. As an adult, I understand that instinct but as a teenager it was simply appalling to me.
Realise that you are a visitor in their home, introduce yourself to the children and even ask permission to enter their space. It is vital that as a responsible adult, you demonstrate to vulnerable children that a home can be safe and it can be theirs.
Be extremely careful about judging children and never, ever play them off against one another. I’m going to tell you about a grave error in judgement made by a professional visitor to our home to demonstrate not only how easy it is but also the harm in doing so. Half way through my stay at the home, our external group therapist left and a new one took his place. My closest friend and I were nervous, uneasy when we met the new therapist and we were horsing around, talking too loudly and being disruptive. Because his background was as an addictions counsellor, he accused us of taking drugs. For the next several weeks we were woken up early each Monday morning in the dead of winter and forced to provide urine samples.
In the meantime, my “drug problem” was blamed for everything from my moodiness to my falling grades and my friend and I were immediately placed in an “us and them” situation. I’m sure you guessed by now that I was most certainly not taking drugs and hadn’t ever done so by that stage in my life. That feeling of being judged, of being accused of something so serious, so wrong, never left me. It took years to shake that feeling of not being good enough and of leaving a bad first impression on people.
Children horse about especially when they feel like they are on display. They also withdraw, sulk, and act out. Be very careful about judging them and especially about doing it publicly.
Be consistent and be a good role model. There was a lady that exploded into the home one day and latched onto a particularly lonely young girl. In no time at all, the girl was spending weekends at her home and there were even plans for her to join their family on holiday. It is clear to me as an adult that the management of the home should have taken a role in managing this woman, her actions and her expectations because all of a sudden, the young girl was summarily dumped back in the home for alleged theft and behaviour problems. The effect on the girl was devastating and it was also extremely unsettling for the rest of us to see.
There is no doubt about it, children in homes have issues. I can tell you from my own experience that they lie, steal, manipulate, make excessive demands and sulk when they don’t get what they want. There is no such thing as unconditional love in their world and they will withhold their love and friendship until they get what they want.
This can apply in any situation too, such as using sweets to get a child to talk to you or giving them gifts. Once again, it comes down to appropriate, balanced behaviour on the part of the adult and ensuring that you do not enter into a manipulative relationship with a vulnerable child.
Furthermore, as a responsible adult, you have to be consistent and you have to be a great role model. These children rarely have the necessary social skills to interact in the world and you cannot respond to them with more confusion and upheaval.
I hope that you have found this helpful, especially if you are considering volunteering in an orphanage or institution abroad. Remember that children are extremely perceptive and intelligent and these points will apply to children no matter where you might travel in the world. As a volunteer you have so much to offer but you are in a position of power and must take responsibility in that role.