Voluntarism in Ecuador

Many youths today seek to explore the world in a very different way to the regular backpacking tour to take in the major sites of the countries that they visit. Feeling as though this is just really skimming over the top of a culture and society as they pass quickly through snapping photos of the iconic spots they view, many young travelers are looking for ways to engage more directly with the cultures and societies that they visit and find a way of making contact and giving something back to their hosts. For this reason we have seen the rise of “voluntourism”, a process of traveling and volunteering in different locations for shorter or longer periods of time in order to be able to share life with the host culture and gain greater insight into the realities of living in a particular place and social/cultural/political/geographical setting. Thus a journey through one or several countries may be made up of a mix of regular touristic activities along with sojourns in the community or grass-roots projects. The complicated part for any young traveler is to be able to judge whether a particular project is worthwhile or not, whether it is a true attempt by a community or local organization to improve their quality of life with the aid of international volunteers, or whether it is just a means for one or more unscrupulous individuals to make a bit of money easily. For that reason, it is important to arrange ones volunteering through a reputable organization, such as the Yanapuma Foundation in Ecuador. This NGO was founded in 2007 and has developed links with many communities and grass-roots projects across Ecuador that require volunteers to help them advance. Placements may vary from working with children and education, animal rescue, conservation and sustainable agriculture, and medical and health-related projects.

Whatever project one chooses, it is good to know that it has been reviewed by a reliable intermediary and that one’s efforts will be worthwhile and in aid of a good cause. Stories abound of volunteers who have pledged their time and effort to work in a project only to find that the community is not benefitting. This can be disheartening and lead to cynicism on the part of the volunteer. But when everything works out well then the volunteer leaves with a sense of satisfaction and content to have made some real connections with people whose life experience and expectations can be very different.

To make it all work, the volunteer should be in contact with the intermediary organization, such as Yanapuma Foundation, before arrival in the country and have at least a rough plan of action for their volunteering. They can get a good idea of how good a fit any particular project might be in terms of the work itself, the language consideration, local climate and culture, and any other relevant factors. Local staff can accompany the volunteer to the project and make sure that everything is organized and ready for them, and be on hand via email or phone to help out if any problems do arise. When everything is well planned and executed then the volunteer will have a meaningful and possibly life-changing experience as a “volontourist”.