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Trapped in Paradise

Article

Visiting exotic locales, helping animals and people in need. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? It can be - or you can find yourself frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed, as I did.

Visiting exotic locales, helping animals and people in need. Sounds exciting, doesn't it? It can be—or you can find yourself frustrated, disillusioned, and disappointed, as I did.

Volunteering is such an important job. When we volunteer we feel a sense of pride and we achieve a sense of community that comes from working with neighbors who share our vision. But my experience showed me that you need to ask questions before you hop a plane to some far corner of the earth. For example, do the people you're trying to help want the service you plan to offer? With global volunteer opportunities on the rise, I hope my advice will help make your volunteer experience more predictable and satisfying.

Kimberly Lane

My story

In early 2005, I explored an opportunity to volunteer at a nonprofit animal hospital in the South Pacific. I believe in the multiple benefits of spay and neuter programs and I support low-cost alternatives. So when a foundation asked me to assume the position of clinic director for a nonprofit spay/neuter clinic located on a lush tropical island, my answer was a quick "Yes!"

It was a cause I believed in, and the island was a place I thought I wanted to visit. And it didn't hurt that the experience would add a virtuous tint to my résumé. My mind jumped straight to the line of questioning that began with "where is the nearest dive shop?" and ended with "how many pairs of flip-flops can I fit in my carry-on?"

The stage seemed set for a full-scale tropical expedition. But I was writing my part in this play without all the facts. I met the president of the foundation I would be working for at the airport just 40 minutes before I was supposed to board the plane for my new home. I lost my chance to ask meaningful questions as she listed an abbreviated version of the administrative duties I was supposed to perform. In that brief time, the red flags shot up.

Kimberly Lane, LVT, left her job and her home in Portland, Ore., to pursue a volunteer opportunity in the South Pacific.

She told me about months of missing bookkeeping entries, explained that the promised company van was in the shop, and gave me a list of renegade individuals who had misguided thoughts about the foundation's direction. One of those people was a prominent veterinarian from my community in Portland, Ore. These were my clues. But in my optimistic way, I thought, "No problem, I can work it out."

Reality sets in

The situation on the island fell far short of the scene I'd imagined. The promised vehicle wasn't just in the shop, it had been damaged beyond repair several months before in a house fire and a replacement was financially inconceivable. The local bus that typically ran on island time became our main source of transportation.

My bike was fine for my days off, but the clinic was too far away to make bicycling possible. Our living accommodations weren't only unacceptable, they belonged to the disgruntled clinic director I was replacing. He evicted me and the volunteer veterinarians I worked with, and we moved in with a teacher from New Zealand until we could find an apartment.

And our problems didn't end there. Hurricanes earlier in the year had devastated much of the island's crops, so most of the food was imported. This meant food costs were astronomical.

I felt misled. I hadn't asked enough questions, but with encouragement from the president of the foundation and the support of a local attorney, I continued working. I still hoped to leave the clinic in a better situation than I'd found it.

I quickly learned I was fighting more than physical and financial limitations. Although the foundation had existed on the island for 10 years, the residents still resisted our efforts. While the island employs a dog ranger, his approach to animal control ranges from shooting dogs that chase vehicles to hanging dogs in a public school yard for following children to school. It's common knowledge that dogs befitting a spit wind up in the back of his truck, where they're sold as food. It's hard to force a culture that eats dogs to comply with desexing laws, as it must seem like the end of a cheap, readily available food source.

Local attitudes about animal welfare also kept us from pursuing legal action against the former clinic director, who was accused of embezzlement, theft, and misuse of equipment. When our attorney attempted to file police reports, the local government ignored his allegations.

For me, it was a daily battle that didn't seem to improve conditions for anyone. After three months I found myself questioning the foundation's policies. Were we yet another group of do-gooders forcing our will on another culture?

Know before you go

Looking back I can see the warning signs clear as day. And if I'd asked the right questions, I never would have made it so far down the wrong path. My advice: If you're considering a volunteer opportunity, dig a little deeper. Use these questions to guide you:

  • Who's promoting the effort?

  • What are their motivations?

  • What's the final objective?

  • Who are you trying to help?

  • What social and economic messages do your volunteer efforts send to the community?

The answers will better prepare you for the prevailing attitudes of the hosting population, whether it's in the center of a metropolis or in a remote third-world country.

Since my experience on the island, I have retreated to Hawaii. I loved the tropical climate of my former home, but I need to know that the work that I do is for all the right reasons. And the next time I volunteer, I'll be sure to ask a few more questions.

Kimberly Lane, LVT, lives in Kihei, Maui, Hawaii. Please send your comments to firstline@advanstar.com

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