People often ask me about my decision to start Therapists Without Borders. In a nutshell, my journey began with years of frustrating, dead-end Google searches that uncovered very few, if any volunteer opportunities for therapists. Equally disheartening was my tiny bank account –one that certainly wouldn’t foot the bill for the opportunities I did find. But that’s not all. Let’s break down the problems and solutions that led me to launch an organization that I hope will change the world.
Problem #1: Unaffordability
The majority of opportunities I discovered were through large, global volunteer network companies that place participants around the world to complete an array of service projects. Sure, they match in-need places and people with eager volunteers. But these are for-profit groups that smack volunteers with exorbitant fees and then reap the monetary benefits. The companies I found charge volunteers thousands of dollars to donate their services in countries that I knew cost hundreds. For example, one such company touts a four-week OT/PT volunteer experience in Cambodia. The price tag? $2,755. I’ve been to Cambodia – You can live extremely comfortably for $20 a day. This equates not to $2,755, but $560.
Why do they charge so much?
Transparent companies will actually show you where your money is going. The company cited above indicates that only 29 percent of each volunteer’s payment funds program costs. The rest goes toward everything involved with running the company. I was determined to dig deeper to find direct volunteer opportunities that didn’t involve paying a middleman.
Problem #2: Irresponsibility
Because volunteering has morphed into a multibillion-dollar industry known as “voluntourism”, many sites prey on volunteers and unsuspecting, good-willed tourists. The most common infraction? Child trafficking. Owners of fake orphanages take children from their families with the promise to provide them a better life, only to then exploit them for money from concerned tourists.
Problem #3: Unsustainability
When I returned from my first volunteer trip, I didn’t sleep a wink – and jet lag wasn’t to blame. I couldn’t stop thinking about the kids I had worked with. I realized their immense potential and was haunted by the fact that I didn’t know what would happen with their future. Were the caregivers going to follow through with what I taught them? Will that child be able to maintain his treatment plan? Will someone else see what these children are capable of and help them achieve their goals?
The aforementioned global volunteer companies are not specific to therapy. They are not connecting past volunteers to future ones. They do not have systems in place to record information that allows the next round of volunteers to continue crucial work. There are no education or training requirements for on-site staff to build upon your work once you’ve left. So, what happens next? Anything? Or do these groups just press the reset button when the next volunteer arrives?
Creating an organization like Therapists Without Borders became a dream of mine, but I never considered it to be one I could actually achieve. Enter Instagram. I started an Instagram account devoted solely to documenting my travels. Without thinking anything of it, I began posting some photos from therapy trips. I was flooded with messages from hundreds of therapists around the world who wanted to know how I identified my volunteer opportunities. They had searched for years, they said, and only hit dead ends. Over and over, they echoed my exact experience to me – and it was eye-opening. Realizing how many people had been wishing, searching and waiting for an organization like this gave me the confidence I needed to start it!
Solution #1: Affordability
We work personally with local organizations to provide realistic and affordable volunteer opportunities and accommodations. Our program sites cost $20 a day or less and we do not keep a single cent of those payments. In fact, volunteers’ money doesn’t even pass through our hands; they pay our vetted program sites directly. As a nonprofit organization, we aim to secure funding through external sources – donors, grants, fundraising events and more – to cover our operating costs. We do not expect our volunteers to incur that financial burden. Furthermore, once our annual operating costs are met, we’ll strive to provide financial assistance to those interested in completing trips. Please consider donating to help us reach our goals!
Solution #2: Responsibility
We vet each of our partner organizations to provide volunteers with legitimate, trustworthy opportunities. Please refer to our ethical organization checklist to see how we screen and verify each site’s accountability. We highly recommend using this list to assess any organization you’re interested in helping.
Solution #3: Sustainability
All volunteers are required to follow our established documentation procedures. This system includes creating individual care plans and goals for each and every child that volunteers and on-site caregivers, alike, can collectively strive toward. This way, we are all working to achieve the same outcome. Future therapists will pick up where previous volunteers left off. On-site caregivers and therapists will continue care, as well.
Aside from a documentation system that promotes carry-over and follow-through, our organization places a heavy emphasis on educating on-site caregivers and therapists. Volunteers will be responsible for trainings related to individuals’ therapeutic care during treatment sessions. Therapists Without Borders will also be providing educational materials and training programs to further the existing skills of those working at each site. The goal is to share information and techniques with community members, and enable new local therapists to sustain care themselves. That way, our volunteers can expand their services to new places and people in need.