This week I interviewed Kimberly Haley-Coleman, Executive Director of Globe Aware. Globe Aware is a non-profit volunteer/voluntour organization dedicated to promoting cultural awareness and sustainability. I’ve written about Globe Aware’s focus on volunteer support, feedback, and building a volunteer community, something I think other volunteer organizations should emulate. As an aside, I would like to commend Globe Aware for their stance against orphanage tourism, a big business that often results in the exploitation of the children it’s meant to support (more on this below).
Could you tell me a little bit about how Globe Aware got started? How did you develop your mission?
I had always traveled internationally. After years of working in the for-profit sector, often scheduled over weekends in developing countries, I started trying to spend my time doing something useful. I was shocked at how difficult it was to find programs willing to take you short term. I understood the issues, needing people available to train and organize, but felt there was a huge need. I started organizing my own programs, always letting the local community decide the projects and how we do them. I personally feel that working side by side as equals with locals on projects that are important to them is one of the deepest ways to experience and understand a culture. Our mission is to promote cultural awareness and sustainability. So while work is a component of our programs, participating in and understanding the cultural and leisure aspects are important as well. Thus volunteers may experience a coffee tasting, traditional sugar cane processing, a Laos wedding, etc.
I’m curious about how you build relationships with the communities you serve. Do you have guidelines for how that’s done or is it more of an organic case-by-case process?
Originally I began with communities I had already worked with in some capacity. Now many communities proactively contact us. We have quite a few criteria we go through to screen what will be most appropriate for our programs.
I’m very interested in your stance against orphanage tourism. I know that orphanages are very popular destinations for many tourism and volunteer organizations and recognize the many potential problems and conflicts of interest there. As you say, children should not be treated as an attraction. However, if a volunteer is highly motivated to work at an orphanage, what would you suggest they do? Is there a responsible way to get involved?
We will still conduct work for orphanages, but because of the potential risks of allowing volunteers to work directly with orphans, we do not put ourselves in a position where volunteers are alone with children or where the focus is to simply go and take photographs of children in poverty. We want volunteers to understand the real beauties and challenges of a culture, but also contribute to its sustainability. We seek projects that will contribute toward that goal. So we do teach English, for example, in group settings to children when it is requested by the school or orphanage, as we know English in many countries provides an avenue for income through tourism.