Updated: Aug 23
Submitted by Raffy
I had always heard of these so-called ‘teen trips’, volunteer trips organized by travel companies for high school students all over the world. Being the summer going into 10th grade, I thought that a volunteer trip would be the best way to start building my resume for college applications. I went home that night, did a few hours worth of research, and presented a plan to my parents the next day: I was going to build a school in the Peruvian Andes. I didn’t know anything about Peru, or the Andes, let alone how to build. I also barely spoke a word of Spanish. But, I was eager to help in whatever way I could, as well as start building my resume, so my parents agreed.
After signing all the waivers and getting my Visa in order, the travel company sent me a preparation packet. It came with branded stickers, a t-shirt, and a packing list. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but the ‘teen trip’ website said no prior knowledge, experience, or research was required to participate. I quickly learnt that was not the case.
When we arrived, it became clear that the high school Spanish classes most volunteers had taken were insufficient for Peru. None of us minded because our two counselors were fluent and translated everything for us. During the trip, I felt like I was really giving back. We woke up in our bunk beds, played with the local kids for a few hours, swam, ate, worked a bit, and played team-building games. We would go to bed exhausted every night, so surely that meant we were really helping the local community.
I had a great time on the trip, but quickly became skeptical of the actual volunteer work we did. I realized that if anything, we were a burden on our hosts. We only worked for a few hours a day, and that work consisted of us carrying buckets and pushing wheelbarrows. Most of the time, the local workers would have to direct or correct us. I remember one day our group sat out completely because everyone was covered in bug bites - most likely due to the poor clothing choices we made when packing. I recall wishing I had done more research about where I was going as I viciously scratched at my legs.
My camera roll from Peru consists of pictures of our group standing by the school holding shovels and adorable local children. Looking back on the group picture, I remembered that none of us ever picked up or used a shovel during our trip - they were merely used as props. I also now realize that those adorable children likely experience the negative impacts of these teen trips often: a group of non-Spanish speaking American teens coming to their home for 2 weeks to ‘make their lives better.’
Instead of leaving after helping these kids the best we could, I realized that we left once we had gotten what we needed from them - a self-satisfying volunteer story and a line for our resumes. I regret going on that trip. While I made long-lasting friends and got to explore a new country, I should have been far more prepared than I ever was. If I had done adequate research before going and was given useful resources, I would have quickly realized that as a non-Spanish speaking, inexperienced teen, I would be doing more harm than good as a volunteer overseas.