The following article was originally published on Walla Walla University's Collegian's website. This is a pointed article written from first-hand experience and interviews. --Marilyn Morgan, Feature Editor

In August, 2013, Heather Ruiz traveled through West Africa as a journalist for ADRA. After working in development for nine months, Ruiz moved to a village in the Western Sahara to find answers for her questions about responsible volunteering and empowering communities.

The following article is her insight on constructive service.

* * * * *

It took me a while to find it. The taxi driver and I were shouting over each other in French about whether the orphanage was another street down or already behind us, but finally the crooked sign “Grace House” appeared in dripping, painted words. The driver lost no time in depositing me on the lonely street, and I felt more orphaned than ever before marching through the creaking gate.

Dirty floors and dim lights welcomed me inside. I did my best to prepare myself for what might come next — coughing invalids or stray chickens or skeleton babies — and I nearly stepped on top of bright red Sanuks.

“Who are you?” The voice caught me first, unmistakable in her accent.

“The journalist from ADRA. I called earlier about stopping by?” I found myself looking at… well, a stereotypical American College Student in all her glory: pink tank top shouting Abercrombie like a tag line to her expressionless face; Ray-Bans slipped into a highlight-streaked ponytail; I almost expected an iced Starbucks to appear in her hand.

“Oh, I’m just here for a week before we go on the safari.” She shrugged. “I came to volunteer with a group from my university.”

I followed her through the halls and corridors to her squad in the main room, and there I found the chaos.

Some children were dancing, others scaling volunteers’ laps and arms, still more were jumping in place as the uncontrollable excitement pummeled through their slender bodies.

“Green dress?” A volunteer was pulling clothing out of a cardboard box.

“Miiiiiiiine!” screeched every girl voice and, honestly, a few boy voices. They tore and clawed through the crowd, arms flailing out.

“Blue t-shirt? Yellow socks?” The voice continued.

“Hey, I have candy over here!” Another volunteer contributed. Even the walls seemed to be quivering with pleasure.

I discovered the director in the back of the room, smiling wide.

“How many volunteer groups do you get here?” I shouted over the din.

“Sometimes two a month,” he beamed proudly. “The volunteers cover almost all our staff.”

“You aren’t providing jobs for any local workers?” I repeated.

“Well, no.” He paused a moment, sensing the need to make it sound better. “We have so very many children here at Grace House. They need food and a home. They need help. Here, they get help.”

“Where do they come from before here?” I encouraged, reaching for my notepad.

“Terrible families. No food. So poor, you know.”

“Wait, they have families?”

“Half of them have families.” I was frozen for a moment, but the sad truth is such numbers are typical in African countries. After the wave of volunteers to orphanages in Ghana began to show signs of an abusive business enterprise, the Social Welfare Department organized a survey revealing that 90% of Ghanaian orphans have one or more living parent.1 The presence of volunteers visiting so many orphanages created “jobs” for children from families that could benefit from a few less mouths to feed.

“Some of these children have lost their parents and are emotionally susceptible at this stage,” I gently said. “Isn’t it damaging to further their never-ending cycle of abandonment from a revolving door of volunteers?”

“This is just the way it is.” The director crossed his arms. “We do this to make a difference the best we can, and you need to remember, this is for the volunteer, too. This experience is life-changing.”

I glanced at the group of college students, taking selfies with the animated children. No doubt this will be a series of profile pictures. For a moment, I wondered if the unidentified, romping, homeless children seemed reduced to the same status of elephants and zebras on the veld. (Read more)

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