The Volunteer Madonna

One of the main purposes of this field school is to effectively examine volunteer tourism programs and break down and not perpetuate some of the negative stereotypes that are currently attached to them. Given the nature of my placement being in a classroom with children and so similar to many volunteer trips, it has been a constant battle personally for me to figure out how I can make my time here different and represent that conscious difference to others.

One concept we talked about in class was the “volunteer madonna”. This is a concept that labels the typically white, female voluntourist who works in a school or caregiving position. She is credited with attributes of being caring, sensitive and nurturing and is often represented through photographs of her with several children around her but is usually not really contributing that much. She becomes attached to the kids and the kids form a much needed bond to her and then she is suddenly gone, never to be seen again. I am sure if you think about it you can think of someone you know personally that meets this description. Perhaps it’s me?

I am in a school, I am playing with and nurturing kids and I am a white female. Does this make me a volunteer madonna? I guess at first glance, maybe. I am so conscious of this and do a lot of personal reflecting to identify how to be more effective than a classic volunteer madonna. However, some of it cannot be avoided. I am going to nurture and connect with the kids and engage with them in a way that is an addition to their atmosphere but not necessary. The work that I am doing at my placement could be carried out without me and I sometimes feel as though my sole accomplishment for the day was making kids smile by playing with them as they do not get a lot of positive child to adult interaction as far as I can tell. How then do I differ from this negative label that has come to paint many female volunteer tourists with the same brush?

These are questions that I have not figured out how to answer yet but I think that the fact that I am asking them is key. I think it is important for all of us participating in this experiential learning program to remember that it is in fact an experiment. None of us are going to get it entirely right the first time. Yes of course we want to be the most effective we can be in the short time we have but beating ourselves up is not helpful and could even be counterproductive. I think it is important for me to engage in this in a manner that really allows me to learn. Through my own mistakes and learning I hope to recognize what exactly it is about the volunteer madonna that is not working so these findings can be used to somehow improve volunteertourism in the education and childcare sector in the future and reduce damages. Certinaly I am not doing everything right and I have accepted that I will not bring as much significant change as I had hoped while I am here. But hey, watching a kids face light up as they laugh and smile because of something I did and consider to be rather insignificant may be huge to them, and that’s worth something too.


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