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Can short-term trips be effective? Local connections are key, say organizers.

How can you do the most good in a short amount of time, especially when volunteering internationally? Some coordinators say working with established groups on the ground can aid in volunteers' success. But others say short-term projects can get locals too dependent on outside resources.

Short-term missions often get a bad rap for not being super effective.

"We try to mitigate that to the maximum by partnering with existing apostolates around the world," said Jeff Runyan, director of FOCUS Missions, which organizes trips for college students. "Rather than going in and inventing a project, we establish what we will do by request of the people who are working there in the long-term." FOCUS Missions' volunteers go to 36 countries. In listening to what local authorities, such as bishops, recommend,

FOCUS Missions teams have improved infrastructure and helped build an educational facility according to Runyan.

Using a combination of short-term interventions can prepare volunteers for long-range plans, said Bruce White, director of the Farmer-to-Farmer program for Catholic Relief Services.

CRS ensures that a short-term volunteer "always has a series of recommendations to carry out," White told NCR. "Subsequent assignments going over are contingent on the successful implementation of those recommendations." There may be value in short-term work as long as a volunteer's skill set matches what the locals need, according to Connie Newton and Fran Early, co-authors of Doing Good ... Says Who?: Stories From Volunteers, Nonprofits, Donors and Those They Want to Help.

Early said helping organize a library might be possible on a short-term basis if it's a defined task you have skills for, but building something or playing with kids might not be as valuable.

People in the host country say, "We know how to build already," Early pointed out. When groups work with local experts to guide the volunteers, the real issues are credibility and knowing the culture.

Newton and Early have a combined 60 years of experience working in Guatemala. Their book takes 400 interviews conducted about volunteering and summarizes them into five lessons:

* Respect and value people;

* Build trust through relationships;

* Do with rather than for;

* Ensure feedback and accountability;

* Evaluate every step of the way.

A distinction needs to be established between teams being sent to help in some physical way versus helping financially FOCUS teaches its volunteers that they are going into micro-economies, and there's a danger the mission will be perceived as a source of funds.

"We tell them if they step into a small store and an elderly person is working, don't give them a $20 bill and tell them to keep the change," Runyan said. "That can actually create some divides in the community."

Michelle Perez, mission trip and staff coordinator of Catholic Mission Trips Inc., said that communities and families receive physical aid through volunteer projects like home and school repairs and renovations. But they are also affected spiritually by "recognizing God's providence and loving concern through the group that ministers to them," said Perez, whose organization runs weeklong summer trips for high school and college students to countries such as the Dominican Republic, Belize, Cameroon and India.

"One concern with many short-term mission programs is what happens in the community when the missionaries leave," said Perez. Working with local organizations such as Catholic Charities to arrange work projects "ensures that assistance will be ongoing in that community"

Catholic Mission Trips helped build a school called Cafe con Leche in the Dominican Republic, and "our groups are able to return to the school to teach English, paint murals and upkeep the playground," said Perez.

But when foreigners come into countries and build schools, is that the best way to pursue community development? Not according to John Donaghy, a long-term lay missionary working in the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copan, Honduras. Donaghy, a former campus minister at Iowa State University has helped arrange immersion trips to the Santa Rosa de Copan diocese.

"Real development needs to be rooted in the community," he said.

Despite volunteers' good intentions, Donaghy believes there are negative effects that might not be evident. One issue is locals becoming dependent on those who come in from the outside. This "may undermine local initiatives and even undercut calls for social change," he said.

Another issue, he said, is locals thinking that only outsiders are knowledgeable, that "U.S. know-how will solve the problems since they know what to do and we are just backward Hondurans."

Donaghy does think there are ways to do service right. This includes "letting the local people take the initiative in terms of what needs to be done, not replacing paid labor, working with people and if possible living with them."

He also suggests listening and learning from locals, being of service to the community and remembering that you are a guest.

Locals' reactions to short-term volunteers vary, but many appreciate that people want to help.

"They want to please us, be polite," Early said.

Charity models work only "in an emergency situation, but can lead to people moving from gratitude for the first time to wondering why you didn't bring certain things the next," Newton added.

To ensure that a host community benefits from a visiting delegation, Donaghy suggests:

* Planning the project with a local group and not just a U.S.-based coordinator;

* Have clear expectations;

* Make sure visitors have a good orientation before they leave the U.S. in terms of cultural differences and respecting the local people.

"If possible, have the visitors be involved in a local project which is ongoing or long-term, with local leadership," Donaghy said.

For example, volunteers from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City,

Iowa, have worked on water projects that have been "coordinated with two Honduran groups that worked in the communities," he said. "These Honduran groups were especially good at developing local Honduran leadership in the communities where the visitors served."

In addition to knowing what to do to help, cultural differences are important to consider. Maryknoll Fr. Michael Snyder, director of vocations and coordinator of the short-term volunteer missions program for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, told NCR that the program holds an orientation to point out the differences before and after short-term trips.

"In learning cultural differences, volunteers can see how similar everyone is," he said. "The trips aren't about getting things done; it's about getting out of our comfortable Western culture and experiencing other cultures."

To address cultural differences, Newton and Early included a discussion guide in their book. In addition to reading and talking about the local culture and learning the history, Early said volunteers should "prepare to challenge your own assumptions."

She also cautioned short-term volunteers to recognize it isn't an easy process. "On a one-or two-week trip you're only getting a slight taste of the culture," said Early.

"Volunteers have expectations of what they want to accomplish in a week," said Newton. "There are layers when working with groups and language and it takes a length of time to build relationships."

The most successful short-term trips are those that leave the community feeling valued, that "the volunteers wanted to listen and get to know and value them," Early said.

Caption: A Maryknoll lay volunteer, third from right, teaches English to refugee Budhist monks in Bangkok.

Caption: Megan Streit, a volunteer with Focus Missions, help locals carry water to make cassava flour in Togo in June 2014.


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Title Annotation:VOLUNTEERS
Author:Elliott, Elizabeth A.
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 15, 2016
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