From traveling around Southeast Asia, I saw so much poverty and children who do not have the opportunity for education, so I wanted to give some of my time to help. After researching numerous programs and countries, I finally settled what appeared to be a great orphanage program in Mongolia, Love Volunteer (LV), who collaborated with the local NGO- New Choice (NC).
My volunteer experience was not the most ideal, but we made the best of it and I want to share my experience and the negative side of volunteering/NGO’s. This will be a long post, so if you just want the main summary, here it is- Ask a lot of questions when signing up for a volunteer program. Have low expectations about how functional and efficient any NGO is- it will probably be semi-disorganized and confusing when you arrive, this is quite normal. But if the program is completely off, don’t be afraid to contact the organization you signed up with and even leave the program. Love Volunteer actually made a great effort to fix the issue, we received our money back and they have since discontinued to work with the local organization, New Choice. Now if you want the whole story, continue reading!
Before we set off for Mongolia, we were contacted by the director of NC and the LV coordinator and everything seemed to be set. However, the reality was vastly different from what was described through the email communication.
This description is from the email I received from LV before arriving: “We work with schools and orphanages in and around Ulaanbaatar. They’re generally lacking resources and so support from volunteers is greatly appreciated. The work is varied but volunteers who are assisting in a school will work with local staff and one-on-one with students. As they settle in they can take their own lessons.”
This is what happened. First of all, when we were dropped off at the apartment, there was not further instruction and we had to push the person who picked us up for more information. The next day, a local high school kid, who apparently volunteers with this program, came to give us a city tour, and told us that school was not in session because it was their spring break, something we were unaware of. So basically, the first week was completely wasted.
The 2nd week, we arrive at the school to discover that we were volunteering at a private school, NOT an orphanage as advertised. These were rich city kids and some of them even owned brand bags and iPhones.
We got in touch with the LV coordinator and told her the situation. She immediately contacted the NC coordinator to understand what was going on. Apparently, she was also unaware of the situation. She was good about keeping in touch with us and ended up returning a portion of the cost back to us. We also met with the NC coordinator in person to understand why a non-profit was working with private schools and where is the orphanage as advertised? Basically, the orphanage camp is only ran during summer, which doesn’t make any sense. Where are the orphans the rest of the time? Though he didn’t explicitly say why, it seemed like he puts volunteers in private schools as a way to make some more money from volunteers. Also, only about 20% of the total cost goes to help orphans. The rest is marketing, housing, and salary. NOT ok. It seems like New Choice may have been a good NGO once upon a time and strayed far from its original goal. The reality of NGO is that it is a place where rich people put their money in order to evade high tax. Not completely sure if this was the case here, but sure seems like it.
I was really upset with how the whole thing turned out. I received a portion of the money back and left the program. I do want to emphasis that Love Volunteer was unaware of the situation and were being fed a totally different story by New Choices. LV were supportive through out the process and emailed me recently to let me know that they are now in the process of collaborating with another NGO.
Now for the happy ending!
After my friend and I left the program, we contacted our tour guide from a trip we took around the countryside. She had mentioned on our trip that some other travelers stayed in a village to teach, so we asked if she could set something up for us. She found us a great Kazakh family for us to stay with and the mother happens to be a teacher in the community. We traveled to the village, where the only form of communication we had was sign language, and just started teaching English at the local school. The students here were so excited to learn about our lives and to practice English with us that I felt like the rest of our time was well spent. I just wished I had more time with them.
So, if you are considering volunteering abroad, be sure to ask a lot of questions, and no matter what, make the most of the experience.