POLOCHIC VALLEY, GUATEMALA — Kristen Larsen reaches for the baby instinctively, stopping to consider her status as a too-tall, too-white stranger only after the child starts quivering and buries his head in his mother's blouse. Mother, a Mayan who makes her home in the lush, green mountains of Guatemala, smells of ground corn and hand patted tortillas. Larsen, a visiting nurse from America, smells of soap and antiseptic.
The nurse lets out a little cry when the baby turns away, her eyes filling with tears. But it's not because she's been rejected. It's because one year ago, Larsen held the child in her arms, malnourished and dying, while she regulated, with her fingers, the flow of life-giving liquid through an IV. Today, the child is chubby, healthy and bright-eyed.
"Oh my gosh," Larsen says. "Oh my gosh. I can't believe — look how big he is."
Larsen returned to Guatemala in July with the non-profit Singular Humanitarian Experience. She is just one of a growing number of Americans to trade in a traditional beach vacation for a stint doing volunteer work abroad.
In 2008, the Center for Social Development in St. Louis, Mo., estimated about one million Americans participated in international volunteer work, a practice those within the industry call "voluntourism." By now, experts estimate, that number's likely doubled.
"This trend is exploding," said Erin Barnhart, director of voluntarism for idealist.org, a New York City-based web site dedicated to connecting do-gooders to service opportunities. "There's money to be made."
Voluntourism programs — dozens of which originated in Utah — vary from grass roots to government-sponsored.
There are volunteer vacations for dentists, doctors and engineers and there are volunteer vacations for those who have little to offer beyond a pair of willing hands and a strong back. Some are for-profit tourist companies that have modified their itineraries to satisfy people's desire to give back. Others, like Singular Humanitarian Experience, were formed as non-profit entities to connect language tutors with students or tackle poverty in the world's slums.
"We get all types of people," said Wade Alexander, director of expeditions for Choice Humanitarian, a Utah-based nonprofit that sends out about a dozen groups annually to complete various projects all over the globe. "We have families, adventurers, college-age kids, senior citizens. People just want to give back."
Satisfied voluntourists return home with more than a bag of souvenirs; they report feeling spiritually changed.
Critics point out, however, that not all so-called "service projects" benefit the Third World societies they are designed to help. Volunteers may be investing in projects the communities are unable to sustain or — worse — perpetuating a culture of helplessness.
A rising trend
Experts attribute the rise of voluntourism to economic changes and improved global communication.
Because of the current financial meltdown, consumers are "more disgusted than ever with greedy corporate execs who just don't care," according to a recent report by trendwatching.com, a London-based, independent trend firm that scans the globe for promising consumer trends, insights and business ideas. "Challenging times see people craving care, empathy, sympathy and generosity," the agency observed, noting that doing good has become a "status symbol of sorts."
Big world events such as the terrorist attacks in the United States on Sept. 11, 2001 and the Haiti earthquake earlier this year have acted as catalysts, prompting more Americans to reach out, according to the Corporation for National & Community Service, an independent federal agency that supports and promotes volunteer work.
The Internet has opened up the world not only to instantaneous communication, but also to a new culture of sharing and collaboration. Web sites such as Wikipedia, YouTube and blogs have cemented in today's youth a feeling of worldwide community.
"Because of the immediacy of world events, the world seems like a smaller place," Barnhart said. "When we see a protest in Iran or we're watching a tsunami in Thailand, it's within hours of the event."
Jennifer Fielding, a 27-year-old Orem native, jumped into voluntourism when she was laid off from her job as a graphic designer last year. Fed up with a fruitless hunt for employment, she went in search of adventure.
"I wanted to see the world, but I wanted to do more than just travel," she said. "I wanted to help other people and get outside myself a little bit."
A trip to Italy, where Fielding volunteered as a live-in English teacher, fit the bill. She scoured the Internet for programs and settled on a company called GeoVisions, which advertises a commitment to helping participants "develop global skills" that will "ultimately lead to greater cooperation and understanding among nations and peoples of the world."
They delivered. She came away from the experience starry-eyed in love with Italian culture, she said, but also gained a new appreciation for what it means to be American.
"It caused me to reflect on my values and challenge why I think the way I do," she said. "It really changed the way I looked at my life."
Change a life
Other international volunteers report similar experiences.
"It was honestly the best thing I've ever done in my life — besides marry my husband, of course," said Cambria Graham, a 23-year-old dance teacher from Sandy. She spent a week building schools in the slums of Nairobi this summer.
It wasn't all work. As in many voluntourism programs, Graham found play time in the form of a safari and a visit to a Kenya beach. But that's not what she'll remember, she said. She'll remember the children, many of whom had AIDS, with their big, brown doe eyes. She'll remember watching them limp along in shoes two sizes too small, how excited they were to show her the lumpy pile of blankets they used as a bed, the feel of their little fingers slipping into her hand.
"They have nothing," Graham said. "But they are such happy, loving, giving people."
Getting to know people so different from her reminded Graham how similar all human beings are — regardless of their circumstances, she said. Digging the foundation for a school, mixing concrete by hand and piling up rocks to make walls, instilled in her a primal appreciation for her physical capabilities.
"I learned a lot about the culture, obviously, but I think I mostly learned a lot about myself," she said. "I learned, you know, I can do really hard things. I learned that I'm a child of God and Heavenly Father loves me. I saw my flaws more clearly, but I learned about my strengths, too, because I was challenged in every capacity."
Change the world
She signed up to help the people of Guatemala, but from the moment Larsen arrived in the Polochic Valley, eight bouncy hours deep into the thickly jungled northeast corner of the country, it was clear, she said, that "the people would end up serving me."
When she hopped off the bus, the local children whisked away her luggage — two duffel bags bloated with humanitarian aid supplies — and lugged it on their backs down a steep hill to her sleeping quarters. They smiled as they made the trek, nearly bent in half under the load. Larsen, unencumbered, struggled not to slip as she picked her way through the thick, red mud.
For the next eight days, Guatemalans cooked for and cleaned up after Larsen and her 40 American colleagues. In return, some volunteers helped dig the foundation for a new hospital and trained local men to perform basic dental and medical procedures. Larsen tutored a group of local women on the art of midwifery.
"This isn't a relaxing vacation," she said. "This is hard. I get burned alive in the heat. It's humid. I ate dirt."
The nearest hospital was three hours away. Few of the villagers could afford to make the trip. "Things out here are life and death," Larsen said.
Because of voluntourism, the people of the Polochic Valley have a secondary school. They've acquired a half dozen laptops for their teenagers and a generator to run them during the school day. The village now has two capable — but uncertified — dentists and a team of rural health workers trained in basic emergency response techniques. In another year, the villagers hope to finish the 20-room hospital volunteers toiled over this summer.
Choice Humanitarian and Singular Humanitarian Experience worked together to help the people in the region.
"As older people, we didn't have the opportunity to go to school," said Ricardo Ical, 57, a church leader there. "If they (Choice and SHE) had not come, none of our children would be able to attain higher education."
The volunteers, who work alongside locals on projects the community requests, have inspired the people of Guatemala, Ical said.
"Before Choice came, we were sleeping," he said. "Now, the sleepiness left. We're working, always working."
Not all voluntourism programs are created equal.
The program fee for an international volunteer expedition can run anywhere from $300 to several thousand dollars. While many organizations, such as Choice, use the fee to purchase materials for projects, others line their pockets.
"Any time there is money to be made, there will be abuse," said Barnhart.
Before choosing a program, would-be travelers should check that the organization partners with the local people both to select and complete projects, Barnhart said. Villagers should be allowed to maintain a leadership role during the process.
"If a volunteer comes onto the scene with the attitude that 'These people desperately need my help,' it's patronizing to those who live there," she said. "It's saying, 'Because I have the funds to fly here, I have all the answers.'"
To score a visit from Choice Humanitarian, villages must come up with a project goal, build their own leadership team and make an action plan, said Alexander, who directs the expeditions. After volunteers leave, villagers are in charge of completing the project on their own.
"We try to provide villagers with the tools to end their own poverty," he said. "We're out there to empower and mobilize villages, not to fix them."
On the opposite end of the spectrum, voluntourism programs have been known to charge people to plant trees that have already been planted or build houses that will be dismantled and sold for parts after the tour leaves.
"I think a lot of times people just kind of go," said Stephen Alder, co-director of the global health initiative at the University of Utah. "They have really great intentions; their projects look like good ideas on the surface, but they ultimately end up hurting the local people."
Over the past 15 years, Alder has spent considerable time in Africa, observing the effects of different types of voluntourism. Because many groups have just "come in and donated stuff," many countries have developed a culture of dependence. When Alder first approached the Ghanaians about bringing in a group of volunteers, one village leader answered simply, "Bring us more money." It took months of work to convince the people that they didn't need handouts; they could help themselves.
"The people almost have a mindset that they require aid to move forward," he said. "Their attitude becomes, 'I'm poor. Making advances is beyond me.'"
Addicted to service
The villagers in the Polochic Valley of Guatemala said they were grateful for the volunteers from Singular Humanitarian Experience and Choice Humanitarian, but, Alexander said, it's difficult to tell how much headway the organizations have made in their goal to "end the cycle of poverty."
This year, nine village women died in childbirth. That's not good news, but things have become better since Larsen's first visit in 2009, when the midwives had no training at all.
"I delivered 12 babies," one of Larsen's students announced proudly. "Things have gone well."
The villager's continued struggles don't discourage Larsen. "It makes me want to try harder," she said. When she gets discouraged, she reminds herself, "at least one child is alive and well because I reached outside of myself."
She plans to make international volunteer work a permanent part of her life. Fielding and Graham, too, have already started planning their next expeditions.
"It's love without all the politics of everyday life," Larsen said. "It's raw. It's beautiful. I can't get enough."