Recently, I have signed up to go to Costa Rica for about 10 days and volunteer to help the children that are in need. However, often when I tell people this, they get a puzzled look on their face. They ask me, "Why would you travel all the way to Costa Rica and help people there, when there are people right in New York that need help as well?". Most of the time, I don't know how to respond because in a way, they're right. What do you think about this? Should I put my country's needs before another country? Should I still go to Costa Rica because the people there need a lot of help and don't have the resources to provide it for themselves?
While there are many issues in this country that require fixing, that does not mean those issues cancel out all other issues. Its an extremely noble thing to do to go to another country where you may not speak the language or have anything to do with the culture (I don't know if that applies to you or not) and put yourself out there to help with the problems that society may be having. From my experience i know that some of those comments, people saying why travel abroad to volunteer when you can stay here, often come just purely from ignorance and fear. Not ignorance and fear in a malicious way, just that they may not know anything about the issues of the country you're traveling to or would personally be too afraid to leave their home and go somewhere where they wouldn't speak the language. Any form of charity work is an extremely important cause and no one else's concerns or views should stop you from helping those who may not be able to help themselves.
I think the idea of "voluntourism" is very interesting. I recently went to Nepal for 6 weeks to build a school in a rural mountain village called Ohkle. It was a really amazing experience, yet also very confusing. One of the biggest things my group discussed was the issues with Americans coming to poorer countries and volunteering in a very condescending manner. There is a really big problem with the fact that a lot of American tourists go into other countries with great intentions of helping the local communities, but instead take a condescending and somewhat racist turn in the way they deal with their time in the community. These tourist groups often come into the community as celebrated guests and then act like their assistance in a project is "God's work". They act as though the locals are lesser or incapable of doing things for themselves, make no effort to participate in local customs or traditions, and end up looking down from their very high horse onto the locals. When I was in Nepal our group leaders made a point of encouraging us all to try local customs like eating with the right hand only, making sure we were dressing in a respectful manner, and learning as much of the language as possible. These choices helped infinitely in making the project a level playing field for our host families and ourselves, evening out our differences and reaffirming the common goal we were working for. This condescending or high and mighty attitude of so many voluntourists is derived from the idea that they are "helping". I read a great essay this summer about the differences between helping and assisting. These voluntourists think of themselves as helpers, working to do something the locals are incapable of doing, thereby putting themselves above the locals. The best way to approach these situations is as an assistant, simply coming into the community to assist locals with their project. In addition, not looking at yourself as a beacon of morality and goodness, but by understanding that while you are doing a good thing it is not necessarily something that must be celebrated or that makes you "better".
Last summer I participated in a very similar program; I went to Costa Rica and participated in many projects that helped to prevent contaminates from entering the ocean. We built filtration systems and did many other small projects to help raise awareness of endangering wildlife, recycling, trash, and pollution in an oceanside community. Like Delia said, the leaders of our group urged us to partake in the traditions of the community, dress respectfully, and try to communicate as much as possible with the locals in Spanish. This allowed us to feel less like outsiders, and connect more with our goal and form relationships with the people. However, what made this experience truly unique was that everyone on the trip was there because they were passionate about the cause, and really just wanted to help. As long as you are doing something that you love and sincerely care about, it doesn't matter where you are. Just because we have our own problems here doesn't lessen the importance of issues around the world. Additionally, we are in a much more fortunate situation economically and socially than many other places. We should be taking advantage of that fact to travel and assist other struggling communities who are less fortunate.
You should definitely go to Costa Rica if it's important to you, but it's important to do research on these go-way teen helping service programs. Some people thousand or more on these trips and it turns out to be a teen hang out thing and not actual work. Or sometimes the teens will work and then the men in that area will fix up at night. Also when you go to these learn about the people there communicate and really work. When you are working there you could be taking away the job of someone who actually lives there could have. Imagine if like people from some foreign place came to NYC and started fixing up our gardens, it would be so weird. There are many problems in our country though. I recently came back from volunteering in New Mexico on an urban farm. There are saw numerous things that reminded me that America has a lot of problems it needs to face. At one point we witnessed a child in danger , where very little help by the police was given to him. This saddened me because our country has so many ads and telethons to help kids all over the world but often fails to help the children in its own country. Whatever you take out of this trip , whatever knowledge you take from it bring it back here so we can also work on our country, because there are many people suffering here too.
I don't exactly think this is an issue of whether one country's needs are more important than the others, but an issue of whether your skill sets might be more useful here rather than there. I've never done a trip like this before, but I know plenty of people who have and I definitely think that it can be an enriching experience and you should totally do it if it's something you feel passionate about. But before you sign up for a volunteer trip anywhere in the world this summer, I think it's important to consider whether you possess the skill set necessary for that trip to be successful (ex: building a library). If you do, that's great; if not, it might be a good idea to reconsider your trip. If doing construction work isn't something you'd be especially successful at, then the main purpose of the whole trip would be for nothing. In many cases, it is more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the money spent on the summer program to be taken and used to hire locals to do the work.
I think it's important to be smart about traveling and strive to be informed and culturally aware. It’s only through an understanding of the problems communities are facing, and the continued development of skills within that community, that long-term solutions will be created. So I guess I'd suggest that if you think this summer program will really allow you to be beneficial to the community you are helping, then you should definitely do it. But it's always a good idea to start close to home where your help might have more of a direct effect.
I don't think you are putting any country's needs before the other. In the end community service and volunteering has the same purpose and benefits. No matter where you are you will still be helping people and making a difference. Yes there are countless community serivice opportunities that can be done here in New York and all throughout the US, but you also have to remember that we are not considered "a developing country" as Costa Rica and almost the entirety of Latin America is. Going out of the country also has its benefits for you personally. Being in an completely different environment and seeing the way these people live will make you a new person. Being from Guatemala, I can testify to the fact that although people suffer hardships everywhere, Latin America does not compare. It's easy to give a homeless man a dollar everyday, but it's a once in a lifetime opportunity to help children in Costa Rica.
The concept of freely helps others applies internationally whether the country is rich or poor. Every nation on the globe require that aid in one way or another. The question is, whether we should be more concerned about the nation that provides us security and opportunities or should we think about nations that need more attentions than this country due to their limited resources? It is accurate to pay attention to both sides equally, if possible, because we as human beings should endorse all other humans around the world and not just restrict ourselves to one location just because we live in that place. Volunteering is better as a global idea since the widespread helping systems will not only bring more nations together but also will assimilate the process of knowing more about other cultures and traditions by helping such people. Thus, you should definitely say yes to this trip because it is great opportunity of taking care of people of various ethnicity and comprehending how a little extra help can actually change people lives. This will not only teach new concepts but also you will teach others about your perspective and knowledge that could be extremely beneficial to others.
Last summer, I was about to do a similar program in Spain, however due to a family emergency, I was unable to attend. Luckily for my friend, she ended up going. When she came back, she had all these amazing stories! I always wondered what my life would be like now if I had gone. Would I have had some sort of self discovery building houses for orphans? Would I have found the true meaning of helping others like she did? While it's true that our country itself needs help, we cannot ignore other countries who are also in need. When people ask why not just stay in New York, they most likely do not know of the situation in other countries as well. My friend's group was able to build over 100 houses over the course of 2 weeks for various orphans from countless villages. I think it's important for us to address the issues our country is facing, but to also not forget those who are also in need of the resources that we sometimes take for granted.
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