Nine months has passed and Jillian Westby is already planning to go back.
The 19-year-old spent six months in Ecuador between October 2012 and April 2013 with a local, non-profit organization working with children at the ferias, or day markets. There, families are forced to bring their children, who work and wait in the streets until their parents long work days are complete. For six months, five days a week, she worked helping them learn and play. Not only did Westby ask to do this work, she paid money out of her own pocket to do it.
The Oak Bay High graduate signed up with International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ), a company specializing in placing volunteers in developing countries for travel experiences coined “voluntourism,” a hybrid of volunteering and tourism that has grown in popularity in recent years as an alternative to the traditional vacation.
While the actual definition and merits of voluntourism have been debated, Westby loved her experience, the people she met and said she wouldn’t change it.
“I have always volunteered my entire life. I wanted to do something meaningful instead of just traveling,” she said. “I made the decision to be a volunteer instead of just a traveller.”
Westby paid approximately $1,500 to IVHQ, plus the cost of her own airfare. She doesn’t equate her experience with tourism, in part because she stayed for such a long time, lived with locals, ate with locals and even maintained a full-time job for six months.
By the end of her stay, she had learned a lot about herself. She said she went into it knowing it would be challenging but fulfilling work, acknowledging she did heavy research beforehand to ensure she was in the right place, doing the right thing, at the right time.
It is a distinction Steve Tipman, president and CEO of Volunteer Canada, respects.
“People just need to really do their homework and be aware, look at the difference they would make versus people in the local community that could be doing the work as well,” he said. “Individuals doing their homework is an important one. There are many Canadian organizations doing great work abroad, Canadians can become engaged. … There are benefits to international volunteering.”
He did, however, offer food for thought to others considering voluntourism, that sometimes as much or more good can come from something as simple as a donation.
“We need to be careful where it is not a one-time opportunity and not something that could have been done by folks in the local community,” he said.
Referring to the recent typhoon that affected the Philippines, Tipman said Canadians can have a direct and immediate impact by donating money. “When you look at the immediate need and the emergency in the Philippines, it was pretty clear from the agencies they needed financial donations so goods and services could be provided right away.”
He said it is great to hear about Canadians wanting to help, and if the goal is to help others, sometimes the best assistance can be a financial donation to an international NGO that can maximize the funds, especially when airfare, lodging and food enters the equation. Tipman also acknowledged the desire for some people to be hands-on when doing good and didn’t discourage voluntourism.
Regardless of the choice, it is important to consider the benefit for both sides, he said.
While Westby’s mother Linda couldn’t speak for the children in Ecuador, she could speak to the changes she saw in her daughter and believes this has been an important life lesson for her.
“She really matured a lot in the sense of seeing how other people have to live. She is very aware, she doesn’t take (her lifestyle) for granted. It made her want to go back and do more like that,” she said. “Jillian would be willing to sacrifice a lot to go back and do something like that again.”
Now in her first year at Camosun College studying environmental technology, Jillian has no specific plans but would love to return to Ecuador.
“I would recommend it to anyone thinking about it, even for a month. It doesn’t have to be a long time. I would definitely recommend it to someone who is considering doing something like this.”