Over recent months I have read a number of respected journalists and travel experts voicing their objections to gap year volunteers being placed to work in orphanages abroad. Some websites have even taken the decision to remove the listing of such volunteer travel packages altogether, arguing that having a constant flow of volunteers spending just a week or two with the children could be emotionally damaging.
As someone who was actually an 'orphan' in Uganda, the subject of volunteers and the impact they make is particularly close to my heart. My own personal story will hopefully provide a new perspective to the debate, and explain why I believe that you can learn something from everybody you meet in life, and how minds and attitudes can be changed in a week, a day or even just an hour in someone's company.
I was born in rural Uganda and spent the early part of my life living in absolute poverty. When both my parents died at the age of 13, my choices were pretty simple. There was a stigma attached to being labelled as an 'orphan' at the time in Uganda, so there was no way I was handing myself over to an orphanage. It wasn't practical to stay with my extended family for a longer period, so I had to pick myself up, find somewhere to live, get part-time work wherever I could to pay for my education and start fending for myself.
The place that I found to live happened to be close to the local orphanage. This orphanage relied heavily on the help of volunteers both local and foreign, and I always went out of my way to be as friendly and helpful to them as I could. This was never with an expectation of anything in return, but it was only by talking to these volunteers that my attitudes and aspirations were completely transformed.
I got to know some volunteers better than others, but my experience of them was overwhelmingly positive and left me with an attitude that anything is possible, which was something that had certainly never been encouraged before. I wish I had known I had somewhere safe and clean to go, with so many positive role models, and I would like to think children facing the same situation today could turn to an orphanage with confidence.
The path of my life was completely changed by a chance meeting with one particular British volunteer, Heather now a doctor. She got to know my situation, and with her family, arranged to sponsor my education. This was the most amazing gift I could have ever received. For the first time I was free to focus on my studies, and I excelled to the point where I was eventually accepted to study Law at The University of London. Aside from the financial support, what was really incredible was the encouragement and moral support I received - it gave me real faith in humanity and it is something I will never forget.
It is very easy for people to hear reports about orphanages, judge them by Western standards and conclude that they're bad. However, until you have experienced the realities and the choices that some children in these communities face every day, you will never appreciate the positive, life-changing impact that some volunteers really make in orphanages.
Inevitably, projects with volunteers and orphanages will involve vulnerable individuals, and unfortunately this means that there is always going to be potential for exploitation. The companies and organasation involved in organising such volunteer trips therefore have an important corporate, social and moral responsibility to ensure they do enough reference checks on the volunteers they're taking.
I set up my company, Sandfield Travel, to give people the chance to not only see the amazing wildlife of Africa, but also get to know the people and make a positive contribution to their communities. We work closely with orphanage schools in Uganda, rather than orphanage homes, but we still insist on checking references for volunteers who are going to be working with children. In these schools the children have lost either one or both parents, and we always work with the schools to place the children with their extended family whenever it is suitable to ensure they have as much stability in their lives as possible. The system in Uganda is still well managed, and I'm pleased to say I am yet to encounter an orphanage home that is not legitimate, nor a child at an orphanage that isn't genuinely in need of support.
I have heard the calls to ban orphanage volunteer trips, and I am sure they are all made with the best intentions. However, you should not dismiss that those people looking after orphanages and orphans are equally working with the best intentions, and with considerably less resources, all help is always welcome.
I dream of a world where there is no need for orphanages. However, the reality is that we can only get there a small step at a time, and until that day comes and child welfare systems change all over the world, the reinvested money from volunteer travel and the kindness and help of volunteers makes an invaluable, life-changing contribution.
Who knows where I would be today if it hadn't been for volunteers working in orphanages in my home town of mityana, Uganda, and I hope that by acting responsibly, travel companies like mine can work to make a real difference to other little "Wycliffes" not only in Uganda or Africa but all over the world.
Wycliffe Sande is the founder of Sandfield Travel (www.sandfieldtravel.com)", an online travel company dedicated to making a difference to the lives of African communities through tourism. They offer tailor-made trips, including gorilla trekking, wildlife safaris and "volunteersafaris" for once-in-a-lifetime real African adventures, and reinvest a portion of the profits into socially and economically sustainable projects.