Volunteerism vs. Voluntourism

by: Elena LaRoss



I looked out the window at the telephone lines and open fields as we drove through Georgia and South Carolina on I-85. Fleetwood Mac, Drake and the 1975 played through my earbuds while I thought about what the week ahead might look like. I was on the way to Durham, North Carolina with 8 other girls I had met barely an hour ago. That week would turn out to be one of the most impactful experiences of my college career.

At the University of Georgia, where I go to school, there is a program called Impact UGA where students elect to go on a weeklong service trip to some part of the US where they will serve a specific humanitarian crisis in that city. I had signed up for a spring break trip addressing Food Injustice in Durham. Food injustice is the basic principle that not everyone in the United States has fair, easy and adequate access to healthy food options. We would serve at a community farm, two community gardens, two food banks, and Meals on Wheels during our spring break.

Throughout the week I was struck by many things, but the most significant take away I had from the week was how appreciative all the employees at the organizations we worked at were of our time with them. At Gear Street Garden in downtown Durham, we helped plant seeds, turn soil, clean out beehives, and do some weeding. The garden was managed by one woman. Our visit was just before prime planting time and we helped her finish tasks that would have taken her weeks to get done. That way, she was able to get the garden ready for the rest of spring so she could have a fruitful season.

At the beginning of the week, my group had a discussion about “tourist volunteerism”, where people help out in a community for a short time but do not really make a difference for the local population. Regardless, we were determined to make the most out of out week even though we would not likely change life for even a percentage of the population of Durham over the course of that week. I think it is important to acknowledge that most of the time when you go and volunteer somewhere, you will not likely leave an indelible mark on the community. But that is not the point of volunteering. Many of the non-profits around the US rely on volunteers to help them reach their target populations and nearly fall short for most of the year because they do not have the manpower.

This experience in Durham taught me a valuable lesson: life does not have to be about making huge impacts on multiple people, lessening the load for individual people can mean just as much. That is why volunteering in the areas just around where you live is so important: you can make a difference for someone that has dedicated their life to making a difference for lots of people. So, let’s take some time every now and then and lend a hand!

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