The best intentions: an examination of current practices in short-term international service trips intended to benefit vulnerable children and youth

Amanda R. Hiles Howard, Megan Roberts, Jacqueline N. Gustafson & Nicole Gilbertson Wilke - Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment


Millions travel annually for short-term international service trips (STIST). These trips often involve volunteering with vulnerable children, including those in residential care (ex. orphanages). Though a prevalent practice, little research exists regarding how volunteers are prepared and what activities they engage in. The goal of the present study was to provide data on pre-trip preparation, in-country activities, and how these impacted volunteer perceptions of preparation and trip satisfaction. Participants (N = 353) answered questions about their experience with STIST. Results revealed that 32.0% did not complete any pre-trip requirements. Of those that had pre-tip requirements, background checks (31.7%) and training (58.1%) were most often reported. Training primarily focused on personal safety or culture. Most interacted with vulnerable children (94.6%) in-country. Of note, 231 (67.1%) participants interacted with children in that child’s residential space unsupervised. Participants who completed pre-trip requirements felt more prepared and satisfied with their trip. This data validates child protection concerns raised about STIST and outlines the scope of the concern. Sending agencies who coordinate volunteer trips have a vital role to play in increasing potential for benefits and decreasing potential for harm as related to STIST. Based on the findings, six recommendations were made for sending agencies.

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