Monday, October 17, 2016

Volunteer Coordinating at Los Quinchos, Nicaragua

Buenas Tardes! Reading through previous blog posts by other Pickett Fund recipients, I am amazed at the breadth and depth of the projects undertaken by fellow Friends, past and present.

A brief description of my project is that I am working in San Marcos, Nicaragua at Los Quinchos, a residential care center for street children from the capital city of Managua. While my day-to-day work involves a plethora of other tasks, my primary focus here is on improving the various forms of short-term volunteer engagements. Led by previous experiences at Los Quinchos in which I witnessed first-hand some of the deleterious effects of well-intended, but fundamentally misguided volunteer work, I felt a calling to return and devote my attention to improving these modes of volunteering. I have been blessed to have the material support of both the Pickett Fund and Haverford College´s Center for Peace and Global Citizenship, as well as emotional support from F/friends and family.

Los Quinchos is a residential program for children ages 8-18. The children all have unique histories and reasons for living at Los Quinchos, but the unifying characteristic of all their stories is that their parents are unable to provide a safe and stable home life for them. They are considered to be coming from ¨high risk¨ situations for reasons such as domestic abuse, sexual abuse and trafficking, involvement with gangs, long-term abandonment, forced child labor, alcoholism and drug addictions, and the death of parents. Los Quinchos provides stable long-term care for the children in a rural setting, attempting to also equip them with an adequate education, psychological services, and vocational training programs.

During 10 weeks spent working with Los Quinchos during the summer of 2015, I was alarmed by some of the negative manifestations of volunteers´ good intentions. In a particular striking instance, a visiting delegation of American missionaries unintentionally re-traumatized a number of the children by carelessly mentioning the children´s previous abuse and abandonment. After the group left, several of the kids struggled for the ensuing days to cope with the feelings that resurfaced. While it is easier to find fault in the behavior of others, I acknowledge my complicity in participating in potentially negative forms of volunteering; especially last summer, walking into Los Quinchos without either the adequate context or qualifications for working with high-risk youth, I am sure my presence had unintended consequences for the children and staff.

This is not to say that all short-term international volunteer work is problematic, but there are significant problems accompanying the presence of foreign volunteers in residential care centers and orphanages. (For a brief summary of some of the main challenges and risks, I highly recommend the Better Care Network´s position paper on orphanage volunteering).

After last summer, I returned to my final year of my undergraduate studies and dove into exploring the issues associated with short-term international volunteering, culminating in my senior thesis. For my thesis, I conducted primary research on volunteering in Chile and was able to find many instances in which the presence of short-term international volunteers can be useful, when carefully structured.

Acting upon one´s faith, for many Quakers, involves a deep commitment to social justice work, both in domestic and global contexts. Having gaining knowledge of what are considered ¨best practices¨ in international short- term volunteering, I now feel led to work in collaboration with the full-time staff to establish these practices within Los Quinchos.

I have been surprised at the many tensions between these ¨best practices¨ and practical institutional considerations. As a small NGO, Los Quinchos largely relies on international funding, much of which comes from individuals who visit the center in Nicaragua and make larger term commitments of resources. As such, Los Quinchos staff and leadership feels the need to appease volunteers and visitors, despite the fact that groups and individuals provide a significant drain of the staff´s time and resources. Groups frequently show-up unannounced at the center and without a translator, expecting to be guided around the various sites. Frequently when groups or individuals show up, the kids are all pulled out of school for the day in order to accommodate the visitors´ schedules. Despite these concerns, the Los Quinchos leadership has previously felt unable to restrict the times and ways in which volunteers interact with the children at Los Quinchos.

As a temporary volunteer coordinator, my main projects work to develop institutional practices and structure around volunteers and visitors. Over the summer months when most groups and volunteers arrive, this meant serving as an interlocutor between the center´s staff and the visitors.

Understandably, volunteers arrive with many pre-conceived notions of what volunteering at an orphanage in a developing country looks like. They want to take sweet photos with the smiling children to upload to their social media profiles. They want to return home to the United States, Italy, or Canada with emotional stories of the impact they had on the children´s lives, of the permanently forged bonds.

These are all natural instincts and desires, many of which I have felt myself. However, for the children and the center, these preconceived forms of volunteering can lead to behaviors that infringe on the children´s privacy or lead to longer-term attachment issues.

During the months in which the center was flooded with visitors and volunteers, I mostly worked to facilitate conversations about these instincts. Rather than accusing individuals, I tried to situate these instincts and preconceptions within the larger context of global North-to-South aid flows and the ways paternalistic attitudes are cloaked within norms and traditions around volunteering.

Since the majority of volunteers have returned to their homes, I am now mostly focusing on creating a framework for future volunteering. In an effort towards sustainability, I am working with the staff to institutionalize the ¨best practices¨ of volunteering. My hope is that by establishing basic perimeters and requirements for volunteers, the center can resolve some of the longer-term tensions between the center´s financial need for volunteers and their mandate to protect the privacy and emotional well-being of the kids.

Of course, most of my day-to-day activities involve working in solidarity with the full-time staff, developing trusting and mutual relationships with them and the children, and accompanying the kids through the daily challenges and joys in their lives. Every day spent working with the children and staff, I feel such deep gratitude for this opportunity.

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