Voluntourism_VivianA recent New York Times article accurately described the predicament of voluntourism. When I began my journey of working with children with autism outside of the United States, I was a volunteer at a school for special needs in Cuzco, Peru. I was untrained and had no experience in a classroom, let alone with children with autism and severe behaviors. Not only had I put myself in harm’s way through my good intentions, but I may have done a larger disservice to the people of Peru in a way I could never have anticipated.

Voluntourism is the practice of untrained and unskilled volunteers seeking an experience to enlighten their world. Often with the best of intentions, volunteers spend time and money to ‘make a difference’ and ‘change the world.’

Voluntourism_Vivian and MiguelI left Peru, feeling the enlightenment and self-discovery I sought. However, I realized how much more of a difference I may have made if I had been a skilled expert in the field in which I volunteered. I immediately enrolled in graduate school to study the field and population which was so desperately underserved in Peru.

SkillCorps was born out of a need to resolve the predicament of volunteers seeking to make a difference by donating their irrelevant skill sets. The New York Times article cites volunteers who have traveled to Haiti to construct a school – a job better suited for Haitians who desire employment and may have the skill sets to complete the job effectively and independently.

Voluntourism_Training in IndiaSkillCorps opens the door for volunteers with specific expertise to have the same cultural immersion, self-discovery, and rewarding feeling of ‘changing the world,’ while actually considering the needs of the people served. Through 2-week intensive training trips in applied behavior analysis and evidence-based practice, coupled with ongoing training and supervision, our partners are receiving the tools needed to change their own communities and buid up self-reliance. SkillCorps and the Global Autism Project seeks to empower local individuals and establish our partners as the experts in their community.

The Global Autism Project meets with our partners weekly to discuss the clinical and administrative training. We take data on measurable goals and objectives. We follow up. That’s the difference. Our partners receive two-week intensive training through SkillCorps, but only to build upon the training that happens throughout the year. It’s applied, behavioral, analytic. It’s conceptually systematic. Our training has shown generality. Our training is effective. 

People often ask why we don’t go into the even more remote locations. The lack of cultural relevance to this training would be astronomical. We instead seek to establish local experts who are equipped to train their communities and disseminate their knowledge to the more remote places where our presence would be more detrimental than effective.

Having a team of foreigners enter a community presents several threats to training – however, the Global Autism Project is about building their capacity without increasing our presence. We’re in the background, we’re training from the backseat. We don’t bring the westernized version of education to our partners – we work within their culture and needs to hone their programming to the same standards of excellence that we hold for our centers and schools.

Voluntourism_YCHIOver the course of the 2-week SkillCorps trips, skilled volunteers visit our partner sites to work alongside the local staff, with both volunteers and staff collaborating to share skills and glimpses into their respective cultures. Training may occur in a consultative fashion, in larger workshops, during sessions, and through one on one conversations. Relationships are built. SkillCorps volunteers support our partners in awareness events, community workshops, and in parent support groups.


How is this different from my first experience?

We are skilled professionals fostering independent, empowered individuals who are able to change THEIR world. We’re a small part of a bigger movement, to establish centers of excellence around the world.


I was 23 years old, without the knowledge (let alone expertise) required to make a difference. I was rewarded for my presence. I was reinforced by the children and the teachers who fussed over my westernized view of education and sought to fulfill an arbitrary standard.

A dear friend I met while traveling who was placed by the same organization in a medical volunteer. As a gap year student, she was thrown into a medical center in Peru and asked to perform intravaginal ultrasounds, give people stitches, and was faced with the overwhelming knowledge that while she intended to go to medical school – she was only 18 years old and had no knowledge of the culture, the expertise, and skills required to perform these medical tasks.

My first experience was a practice in voluntourism. It lead me to the conclusion that to truly make a difference, a program was needed that utilized the volunteers skillsets and allowed people to work within the culture they visit. Instead of volunteering through presence, volunteers must be afforded the opportunity to make a systemic, sustainable change in the world through the empowerment of local individuals.


The aforementioned not withstanding, voluntourism changed my life. I am thankful for the people I met, and the forward momentum for sustainability, and the drive for lasting change. 


This post was written by Sara Costello, the Director of International Partnerships for the Global Autism Project.

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