The university’s position on travel to orphanages doesn’t reflect shifting attitudes

Out of sight, out of mind: Many students experience culture shock when they visit a foreign country. This was the case when some Washburn students visited a Belizean orphanage as part of a transformational experience trip.

James Gorman WASHBURN UNIVERSITY

Photos of palm trees, coral reefs, jungle ruins, and students playing with local children highlight the University’s webpage promoting the study abroad trip to Belize. The page claims students “provide needed volunteer services to Belizean orphanages.” Despite good intentions, trips like this are coming under new scrutiny.

Anna-Marie Lauppe, a senior psychology student, remembers how happy the children seemed when they arrived at the orphanage. The children were excited to take part in the educational activities the students had planned for them.

“It was amazing to see that something as simple as friendship bracelets could make their day,” she said.

When it was time to leave, some of the children began to cry.

“There were certain kids asking if we could take them home with us,” Lauppe said. “It was heartbreaking to tell them ‘no.’”

Leaving the children can be difficult for the students, too. Students are encouraged to write daily journals and meet every evening to discuss the day’s events.

“It’s hard to say goodbye. [The children] need so much,” said Judith McConnell-Farmer, an education professor.

McConnell-Farmer has led students on the trip to Belize nine times. She believes the trips provide a positive experience for students, as well as the staff and children at the orphanage.

“Our students do a variety of learning activities with the children,” McConnell-Farmer said. “Our program donates materials to the Dorothy Menzies Children’s Home staff to support the continued education of the children.”

Dorothy Menzies Child Care Center is a residential care facility in Belize City maintained by the Belize Department of Human Services. Between 30-60 children live in the facility.

“Most of the children in the orphanage have family,” McConnell-Farmer said. “Their parents cannot take care of them.”

The Belize Ministry of Human Development’s webpage for the orphanage states: “Most of the children at the center have been abused, neglected or abandoned. These children need a loving and caring environment in which to grow and develop.”

But living conditions at the facility are not ideal. During a tour of the facility, students witnessed ripped mattresses, some on the ground and many without sheets. Large piles of trash attracted rats and insects. The large steel fence surrounding the facility surprised some students.

“Apparently they have kids break out all the time,” said Joey Lewis, a senior in the athletic training program. He traveled to Belize in 2017.

McConnell-Farmer describes the living conditions as typical of the region.

“For most of our students, it is the first time that they have visited a children’s home in another country or in the U.S.A.,” McConnell-Farmer said. “Visiting situations which are different from those with which they are familiar can be disconcerting to a newcomer who has never traveled abroad or experienced similar living conditions here in the States.”

McConnell-Farmer believes the experience teaches students about the challenges of limited funding and resources in a developing country and makes students aware of the disparities that exist.

“That is part of a cross-cultural learning experience,” McConnell-Farmer said. “Helping children in a variety of settings becomes a transformational experience for our students.”

Alex Trujillo, a sophomore studying physical therapy, has made the trip three times. He has seen some improvements made to the facility but is concerned about the emotional toll on the children.

“Sometimes I wonder if we are doing more harm than good,” Trujillo said. The students visit the children for four hours over the course of two days.

Christina Menager, an assistant professor in Washburn’s psychology department, said the impact on the children is likely negligible.

“It’s highly unlikely that one interaction is going to positively benefit those children whatsoever,” Menager said. “But I also don’t think it’s detrimental because it is a very brief episode.”

Menager believes many of the children’s behaviors described by the students can be attributed to disinhibited social engagement disorders.

“They so desperately crave [attachment] they will go up and hug a stranger,” Menager said. “Attachment is such a core craving in us.”

Menager said children in these scenarios would be benefited by being placed in an adoption or foster care situation where they have consistent caregiving.  She wants students traveling to other countries to be more aware of how they are impacting the local population.

“We are in such a place of privilege,” Menager said. “Maybe folks will start to think about how they can make sustainable changes for these children because just going once is unlikely to make a difference.”

McConnell-Farmer believes the impact of the trips to Belize should not be disregarded.

“We have built a relationship with [Dorothy Menzie’s Child Care Center] over many years,” McConnell-Farmer said. “The staff and some of the children remember Washburn University visits from year to year and welcomes us each time we visit the children’s home.”

Lauppe recalls her visit was a positive experience for the children and gives them hope.

“They can forget about their sadness, the repetition in their lives,” said Lauppe. “Someone out there does care.”

The U.S. State Department released a report in June 2018 that found orphanages fail to provide emotional support required for healthy brain development. The report further found that orphanages and residential institutions frequently facilitate human trafficking, citing incidents in Asia, Central America and Eastern Europe. The State Department currently ranks Belize as a tier 3 country, the worst possible rating, for its lack of effort to reduce trafficking.

Faculty-led trips must be approved by several university departments, including the business office, university scheduling and accounting. The criteria for the university’s program development guide requires that trips include a “strong cultural component” and “strong local interaction.”

Patrick Early, Washburn University’s director of public relations, says the university’s position is based on the circumstances.

“The faculty make careful contacts and arrangements,” said Early.

Faculty members leading trips must begin the trip proposal well before the trip. The faculty leader must obtain tentative approval from the department chairperson, the appropriate academic dean, and the Office of International Programs director seven-months prior.

McConnell-Farmer requests permission to visit the orphanage from the Belizean authority months in advance and often does not receive approval until just a few weeks before the trip occurs.

“We receive approval to volunteer during specific days and times,” McConnell-Farmer said.

Dorothy Menzies Child Care Center and the Belize Ministry of Human Development did not respond to requests for comment.

Kate Van Doore, an international children’s rights lawyer, wants universities to consider the research on volunteering in orphanages.

“Universities should not visit orphanages, whether they are government approved or not,” Van Doore said in an interview conducted via direct message on Twitter.

Van Doore led the efforts to pass Australia’s Modern Slavery Act, which took effect on Jan. 1, 2019. The bill requires universities and organizations to publish an annual report that identifies any risks of modern slavery in their supply chain or operations, and a plan of action to address these risks. The act identifies orphanage tourism as a form of modern slavery. On Feb. 8, the Canadian government announced that it will begin consultation to introduce similar legislation.

Van Doore said that volunteering at orphanages and donating money or supplies undermines efforts to institute effective child care options.

“There is no such thing as a good orphanage given what we know about the effects of institutional care on the development of children,” said Van Doore.

McConnell-Farmer said the decision to volunteer at an orphanage is complex and emotional. The orphanage visit is only a small portion of the study abroad program, which includes a three-day international conference for education professionals, visits to local schools and excursions to cultural and historical sites.

“Our work at [Dorothy Menzies Child Care Center] is a structured volunteer placement with educational activities in partnership and overseen by the Belizean government,” said McConnell-Farmer.

The trip to Belize is currently the only faculty-led program at Washburn that includes an orphanage visit. Trips to Nicaragua, which previously advertised orphanage visits, have been discontinued due to political instability in the country. The university partners with Academic Programs International (API) to offer additional study abroad opportunities. API advertises several orphanage volunteer opportunities, including several programs offered by Washburn.

David Coles, manager of the volunteer center at the London School of Economics, helps students find responsible volunteer opportunities in his community and abroad. His university has signed a pledge to replace orphanage volunteering with other opportunities that benefit the students.

“Every university has a duty to inspire their students to volunteer, but they also have a duty to educate students on how to make an ethical and sustainable difference and to give due thought before committing,” Coles said.