Editorial: Local voluntourism

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This year, incoming first-years had the opportunity to participate in “Volunteer Experience 2017.”

The Volunteer Experience, run by the Community Service Office, is a three-day bonding experience where students work on service projects around the Lehigh Valley. Past excursions have included ecological restoration at the Jacobsburg Environmental Education Center and peer-mentoring Allentown students through Volunteer for America.

Friendships blossom. Hugs and smiles are exchanged. Tearful goodbyes are shared.

Similar to Lehigh’s program, volunteer organizations have started offering “voluntourism” programs where prospective volunteers pay money to offer their services across a variety of destinations.

Voluntourism, n. A form of tourism in which travelers participate in voluntary work, typically for a charity.

Want to teach English in Ethiopia? There’s a dozen different websites where you can sign up.

The problem with these programs isn’t their messaging but the “vacation destination” approach they use to attract volunteers. People choose what they’d like to do based on where they’d like to travel, not where they’d be most helpful.

Sometimes volunteers even have the potential to do more harm than good. Lehigh’s Global Medical Training program, previously held in Panama, had students who weren’t required to be certified in first-aid assisting with health care assessments and treatments.

Training volunteers takes time and energy. It requires additional food and shelter to sustain volunteers during their stay. Once they’re finally prepared to help at full capacity, it’s almost time to leave.

Donating to a cause is almost always as helpful as volunteering — sometimes more so. And the same can be said for South Bethlehem.

Organizations like New Bethany Ministries and The Boys & Girls Club have direct control over donated funds, allowing money to be distributed where it’s most needed.

In some cases, food donations are even more important. South Bethlehem is a food desert — an area of the country where fresh fruit, vegetables and other whole foods are significantly lacking, or nearly nonexistent. Almost 1,400 children come from families living below the poverty line, and 89 percent of Broughal Middle School students are on free or reduced lunch.

That being said, no one is claiming you should stop volunteering. Any help is always appreciated — at the very least, peer mentoring or working at homeless shelters gives people a chance to interact with others they know care about them.

Just make sure to put in an effort. In the past, families have dealt with condescending attitudes when dealing with Lehigh. If you’re going to participate in something like Adopt-a-Family, actually get to know the children you’re buying gifts for. 

Prioritize causes where you can make a meaningful impact on a local level. As Lehigh students, we have a responsibility to continue supporting the South Bethlehem community in any and every capacity as long the South Bethlehem community continues to support us.

Time to uphold our end of the deal.

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