A volunteer mismatch leads to a sudden end to this trip to Italy

A volunteer mismatch ends in Italy

Emily James thought that participating in an international volunteer program would be the perfect way to experience a new culture, make new friends and see the world. Things didn’t quite go the way she had envisioned. Now she wants to know if we can help make this volunteer mismatch right.

Her case serves as a warning to novice travelers: International volunteer projects are not guided vacations and participants must possess some level of travel-savvy and confidence for a successful outcome.

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Volunteering abroad

James had enrolled in a two-week program in Italy sponsored by the company Geovisions. There, she was to participate in a summer camp for local children.

“I believe that this company scammed me out of my money,” James reported. “I got nothing. They advertised a volunteer camp counselor, making new friends while exploring another country — but all I got was $1,300 taken from me.”

James seemed to be insinuating that she had not participated in the program. However, that wasn’t the case.

She had flown to Italy — and everything went downhill from there. Her volunteer experience ended abruptly when she walked off the “job” nine days later and flew home.

So what went wrong?

I thought it was an English speaking camp where the counselors would be helping the kids with their English. But only two people spoke English. Their English was broken, so we couldn’t even ask for help.

My breaking point was when I was lost on a local bus for over two hours. No one spoke English — I was crying on the bus and I texted Sarah (my local contact) and told her that I was lost in a bad part of town. Sarah texted saying that she left the bus schedule on the table in my apartment. I was abandoned in a foreign country.

You probably have kids; I don’t care that I am 30 years old. Sarah and Geovisions have insinuated that because of my age I should be perfectly fine without a lot of help… Imagine if your kid had NEVER traveled before but thought volunteering would be a great way to meet people and travel while being safe and giving back. But no one speaks English and your kid feels stranded – your kid is scared s****less and frustrated and cried almost every night. Now I am in debt. How upset would you be?

A volunteer mismatch

If we could just pause for one moment — a 30-year-old isn’t a kid. But it is an interesting insight that James compares herself to a kid being dropped in a foreign land.

One thing was evident: James’ expectations were severely misaligned with the actual purpose of this trip.

And it seemed to come as a complete surprise to James that English was not the common language in a rural Italian village.

I read through 25 pages of emails between James and Geovisions. It would not have been hard to predict the failure of this volunteer endeavor.


From the moment that she placed her deposit, James expressed ambivalence. Her email requests sought reassurance, and she frequently asked a variety of staff members the same questions.

In fact, she had initially been scheduled for a trip to Spain but canceled just before that program was to begin. As a courtesy, Geovisions had placed her volunteer intentions on a one-year hold.

James’ emails before arrival in Italy gave the impression that she was registered for a guided tour and not a community volunteer program. And I wondered why the organization had not seen the same warning signs that I saw in her paper trail.

Response from Geovisions

For the answer to that question, I reached out to the director of Geovisions, Randy LeGrant. Unbelievably, he had a folder of additional emails from James before, during and after this failed experience.

These emails showed that his staff in Italy and in the U.S. had tried to assuage James’ anxiety about the trip for months. The Geovisions employees provided James with addresses, bus and other transportation information, and local contacts, among other things.

And this paper trail showed something else that set James’ volunteer experience off on the wrong foot. Because she was “uncomfortable” booking a connecting flight to Rome, she was unable to arrive on the same day as all the other volunteers. This late arrival caused her to miss the group transportation from Rome and the orientation class, which undoubtedly contributed to her lack of clarity about her program and her feelings of isolation.

Should Geovisions turn down some volunteers?

Based on both paper trails, which amount to 35-plus pages, It would appear that this company focused quite a bit of staff energy on Emily James during the past year. So I asked LeGrant if there is ever a time that his organization should turn down an applicant.

I think in this particular case, given the try for Spain, and then a move to Italy, combined with Emily’s work issues and timing … we should have passed. In the end, I wish Emily had sat down with Sarah there in Italy. I am totally convinced something would have worked out for the best.

That said, we do reject volunteers for many reasons. I did speak to Emily once before her departure and I thought this experience would be amazing for her and get her along a new path and open new doors. Now I guess I was wrong.

I appreciate your comments and suggestions. I am always open to learning more and making adjustments so these things don’t happen. At the end of the day, we need more volunteers and we need them to speak highly of the experience. And that bodes well for a better world and it leaves it better than we found it.

The bad news

We couldn’t fix this volunteer mismatch. A domestic volunteer situation would have better met James’ needs for her first volunteer experience away from home. The language barrier, the unfamiliarity of the country and her unproven travel skills all led to this fiasco.

It’s unfortunate that this story ended as it did. I believe that both sides of this case had good intentions. But I hope, in the future, with a little better planning, a local guidebook, and a language translator app, James can have the positive international volunteer experience that she initially had in mind.

Should Geovisions have refunded any of Emily's money?

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51 thoughts on “A volunteer mismatch leads to a sudden end to this trip to Italy

  1. One of the strangest stories I have read on here. Hope OP simply books a guided tour next time instead of monkeying around with a “volunteer program.”

    1. From what I read, her lack of preparation and a huge element of immaturity in her statements would make me not want to be on a guided tour with her. I kept asking myself “how old is this person?”….My sister and I would travel (backpack, hostels, trains, buses, rent a car in desperation) Europe, then often meet in some country. We always made certain we knew basic language of each country. If we were to stay in a country for more than two weeks, one of us would learn more than the basic elements. We adapted to the cultures, ate where they ate, and occasionally found we weren’t where we were supposed to be or thought we were at. We decided long ago that we were never ‘lost’ because …. well, look, here we are! !! It’s not all been rosey, sometimes tiring, but attitude made a huge difference for each of us in our separate travels, no matter what age we were.

      1. It’s all about maturity level. If you’re on a city bus in a foreign country and you feel like you got “lost”, you have two options – think of it as an unwelcome abandonment worth crying over or think of it as an impromptu adventure worth exploring.

  2. I think the onus is on Ms. James. She is obviously not ready for solo travel if she is not comfortable making a connecting flight to a major European city. She would have been better served by traveling with a friend on a guided tour for her first overseas trip, not signing up for a stay in a rural Italian village. I applaud her desire to volunteer, but this was not a good fit for her.

    1. I would applaud her desire to volunteer but I’m not convinced the LW understands what volunteering entails. If she can’t take care of herself (expects to be treated like a child traveling alone), how is she supposed to help others? One must be self sufficient in order to be effective at helping others. If not, then they become a strain on the entire operation – like she did.

      1. I don’t think she had any interest in volunteering whatsoever. It sounds to me like she was just using this organization as a way to take an exotic vacation in a foreign land on the cheap. That is very obvious from the interactions she had with them before she left. From the article:

        “James’ emails prior to arrival in Italy gave the impression that she was registered for a guided tour and not a community volunteer program.”

        Yeah, there was no “desire to volunteer” worthy of applause. There was nothing but a desire to take advantage of a volunteer organization in order to get a guided tour of Italy for a fraction of the cost of an actual guided tour of Italy.

        Can you imagine someone expecting to pay only $1300 for a three-week vacation in Italy?

  3. It sounds as if Ms. James isn’t the type for this kind of program. I’m sorry, but if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of a connecting flight, then you really need an all inclusive guided tour to go overseas. And at 30 – you really should have it together a bit more.

  4. Wow. Yeah, this is an odd one.

    Obviously the primary problem here was not with Geovisions, but with the LW. She had utterly unreasonable expectations both of Geovisions and of the residents of the country she was visiting. It seems she was expecting an extremely inexpensive trip to be a fully guided expedition. And, like the quintessential, cliche “ugly American”, she was expecting people in a foreign country to speak her language, not their own.

    But all that is obvious. What REALLY bothers me here, and I believe is worth pointing out, is that it appears that SHE was the one scamming Geovisions! I checked out their site – they make it clear these are opportunities to *volunteer* in order to help a local community, while immersing oneself in the local culture. They are NOT luxury guided tours. They are not vacations. They are opportunities to do something altruistic and selfless – to give of yourself to a local community that needs the help, while gaining experience and exposure to new places and cultures.

    Instead, she saw it as a way to get a foreign vacation for super-cheap. And she refused to take even the slightest responsibility for herself. It seems her motivation was not at all selfless, it was purely selfish. She wanted a vacation, not to volunteer. She expected Geovisions to hold her hand like she was a child – literally. At 30 years old, that is outrageous.

    If she wanted a guided foreign vacation, there are plenty of all-inclusive tours she could have taken that would have made all the arrangements, handled all transportation, held her hand the whole way, and done all of the necessary communicating with the local people so she never had to deal with the terror of being an adult in a foreign land.

    If she can’t afford that, then she should stay home and save her money until she can – not scam a humanitarian organization in order to fulfill her travel fantasies.

    This may sound harsh, but I think this case deserves it.

    I have two young nieces who recently did similar trips with a different organization. Neither had ever been out of the country. Before they went, they both studied the local language so they could get by on their own if need be. They followed all the rules, and went there with open minds and hearts for the sole purpose of doing something selfless. Their experiences weren’t perfect – one ended up with a roommate who was doing drugs, another had an inept lead counselor – but they rolled with the punches and always remembered that they were there to serve the under-served local people. Which they did with aplomb, and came back feeling great about themselves, with more personal confidence and the knowledge that they did something good for others.

    See the difference?

    1. it appears that SHE was the one scamming Geovisions!”

      There is so much you can legitimately criticize the OP for, but this claim is outrageously over-the-top and has no foundation whatsoever per the established facts.
      She paid the program fee from her own pocket which according to Geovision’s website covers the cost of travel and accommodation. In the course of 35 pages of correspondence and asking questions, she did nothing to hide her expectations, which were obviously misaligned according to the author. She enrolled only after receiving reassurance and encouragement, in spite of that.

      1. Okay, fair enough – perhaps the word ‘scam’ was too strong. So how about “took advantage of”? I think that accurately depicts what she was doing. She clearly wasn’t going on these trips for the purpose of volunteering to help a community in need – she was doing it to take a personal vacation at a fraction of the cost of what such a vacation would normally cost. And the reason it’s so cheap is because she was expected to be there to work, not to tour. She was trying to take advantage of the super-low cost of this trip, without doing the work required.

        Part of that work involves being a responsible adult and not expecting the staff to babysit her, as they are all supposed to be there for the purpose of helping the community…and her refusal to take responsibility for herself not only meant she wasn’t able to fulfill her own part of the deal, she made it more challenging for the others there as well.

        And yes, Geovisions has a role to play here. They should have picked up on the fact that her expectations did not align with their trips. From what I can tell in the article, they now recognize this error and have learned from it. On the other hand, it’s hard to blame them — who could have expected someone to be so utterly helpless and irresponsible? I’m sure they’ve had other nervous volunteers before, whose ended up doing a great job. Lesson learned for them I’m sure.

        1. There is nothing in the article either to suggest that she didn’t faithfully perform her 20 hours per week of volunteer counselor duties while she was there.
          According to Geovisions, their fee “covers our cost”, including transportation and placement, and $1349 normally covers 4 weeks.
          It’s fair to criticize the OP for leaving prematurely (presumably without someone to replace her), but if you want to believe that their fee doesn’t really cover their costs, then you would have to believe she did them a favor (at least monetarily) by leaving early…

          1. You are correct that the article does not specifically indicate that she didn’t fulfill her work duties – but IMO I think it’s pretty obvious. And even if she did actually do some work, the very fact that she needed such hand-holding from the staff would, again IMO, cancel out any benefit of the work she was doing by making it that much harder on the staff.

            I never said that their fee doesn’t cover their costs – I expect it does, or they wouldn’t be doing this. But that fee is clearly bare-bones – anyone who has ever traveled to Italy can tell you that you can’t possibly get much for only $1349 for four whole weeks. Just the transportation alone would nearly take all that, not to mention accommodations, food, etc. Obviously it can’t possibly include guided tours and babysitting, which she seemed to be expecting.

            But in the end, I would have to say she DID do them a favor by leaving early, thereby reducing the burden on the staff to hold her hand like a child! 🙂 And she also did them a “favor”, if you want to call it that, by educating them to be more discerning of their volunteers, so they don’t end up with another one like her.

          2. It’s obvious from her own words that she looked forward to “helping the kids with their English.” Her complaints were mainly about the lack of English speaking colleagues and hand-holding on her free time.
            BTW, right now, one can buy round trip tickets from the east coast to Italy, for 2 weeks next summer, for less than half that cost (as low as $479 to be precise). There were similar deals available last summer. One could find hostels for around $20/night. Not sure why you would think that shared accommodation in a summer camp dormitory, and a pasta lunch with espresso (dinners do not appear to be included), should cost a whole lot more than that….

  5. A good lesson to be reminded of on this one, to know what someone’s expectations are (your own and the other party) and to “listen” to what is being said. She obviously heard only what she wanted to hear, and Geovisions did not recognize that she was not understanding what they were telling her (based on the repeated emails she sent). The “idea” of volunteering may have blinded her to the realities she would be facing as a very inexperienced (none) traveler.

  6. Maybe Ms. James’ problems were of her own making and she was a bit unreasonable, but this overseas volunteering concept is for the birds in my opinion. I do my volunteering in my own hometown or nearby, where the only cost I incur is gasoline to drive to the place and maybe lunch or dinner afterwards with other volunteers. A vacation is for relaxing, thank you very much.

    1. While I completely agree with your comment that a vacation is for relaxing, I disagree with your appraisal of these overseas volunteer organizations.

      Yes, of course there are plenty of ways to give back to your own community. But these foreign volunteer organizations are really a great way for young people to not only do something selfless, but to see more of the world than their own community, learn self-reliance, explore other cultures, and gain exposure to other ways of life.

      Which is why this was such a mismatch for Ms James. She’s NOT a young person, and all she wanted was a vacation.

      Just out of curiosity, what makes you think that the people who do these overseas volunteer trips don’t *also* volunteer in their own communities? Why must someone limit their volunteering to just their hometown?

      My nieces who recently did trips like these are deeply involved in their local communities. They volunteer at the food bank, have built homes with Habitat for Humanity, and done plenty of other local volunteering. They took these trips because they wanted to expand their understanding of the world, gain travel experience and learn about other cultures, all while helping others. They weren’t expecting a vacation, they were expecting to work.

      It’s a good thing not everyone feels as you do about only giving of yourself to those nearby. Otherwise we wouldn’t have the Peace Corp, Doctors Without Borders, or any of the other wonderful international aid organizations.

      1. First of all, I don’t mean to come off as holier-than-thou just because I only volunteer locally, and I don’t think any less of people who chose to do these volunteer vacations, and I’m sure many of them do volunteer locally. It’s just that the hassles associated with overseas travel do not make the added effort volunteering worth it to me. Maybe to others but not to me.

        Second, you mentioned Peace Corps, Doctors Without Borders, Red Cross and other international aid organizations. From what I’ve seen with these organizations, who all do wonderful work in my opinion, are funded by government grants and outside fundraising, and are able to cover all the travel and housing expenses of their volunteers (perhaps I don’t have entirely accurate information on this). Also, many of these international aid organizations have a lot of work done by full-time employees, who get a salary and benefits. You probably don’t get rich working for these organizations and I admire the devotion of people who work for them. In any case, these other organizations you mention are not the same concept as a “volunteer vacation” where you must pay and navigate your own way. I will never do that. But if you and your nieces enjoy it, good for you.

        1. Thanks for clarifying your statement.

          I do recognize the vast differences between actual humanitarian aid groups vs these pay-to-volunteer organizations. They are completely different animals for sure. I was just reacting to your comments that seemed to suggest that people should focus their volunteering in their own communities, rather than other parts of the world.

          I have never done one of these trips – I don’t need the exposure to other cultures, and I’m too old to want to “rough it”. 😉 But for my young nieces, they were fabulous! They raised all of the money for the trips through working as well as fund-raising, part of which they donated to local aid organizations, the rest they used for these trips. They are young and strong and full of energy and eager to learn about other cultures, and had no issues with the “roughing it” part. Having never traveled out of the country before, this was a way for them to experience doing so on their own, but with the support of an organization…all while helping people in need. They came back just raving about the experience – bumps and all. And there WERE bumps, but they are resourceful girls who never panicked, and were able to figure things out on their own without falling apart…unlike the LW. They also followed the rules and guidance of their host organization…unlike the LW.

          They now feel more prepared to travel on their own, while also feeling good about themselves for having helped others along the way. All in all I call it a win-win. 🙂

          Like you, these trips do not appeal to me. But then I have the resources to actually pay for my own foreign vacations without having to volunteer in order to afford it, and I already know how to travel quite well on my own.

      2. When it comes to the “go to developing country X to volunteer” projects, if people really wanted to help, they would just stay home and send a check for whatever the trip would have cost them. Unless you have special expertise (i.e. physician, int’l aid worker, etc.), the people you’re trying to help would almost certainly be able to get more help by hiring that help locally.

        1. I will say the same thing to you that I said to another commenter – I disagree that donating money is the only valid and viable way to help developing countries or communities in need.

          It’s NOT always possible to get the help they need by hiring locally. There ARE thing that unskilled volunteers can do that can be of great help. Teaching English is a perfect example – how can you expect to hire local help to do that? These volunteer organizations provide an opportunity to bring in English teachers to needy communities that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for these teachers themselves. How is that wrong?

          These organizations often have spent years setting up the infrastructure to get the most out of their volunteer work, so they can make a huge difference for very little money.

          Furthermore, just sending a check eliminates the opportunity for people to actually DO something actively to help. It does nothing to teach young people the value of a hard day’s work while being selfless. It does nothing to inspire young people to continue down a path of altruism. It does nothing to show people how good it feels to give of oneself, beyond just writing a check.

          The ultimate benefits of these organizations are far more extensive than just the work each volunteer does during that one trip. Example: one of my nieces who did a trip like this is now embarking on a career in legal aid for the poor. Her roommate on that trip was so inspired, she’s becoming an ESL teacher. They were both inspired by their volunteer experiences.

          I think your view of humanitarian aid is rather limited. Just throwing money isn’t always the best way to help. You also have to consider the issue of corruption – how much of that check you wrote was actually spent on helping the local community?

          Food for thought!

          1. “Furthermore, just sending a check eliminates the opportunity for people to actually DO something actively to help. It does nothing to teach young people the value of a hard day’s work while being selfless. It does nothing to inspire young people to continue down a path of altruism. It does nothing to show people how good it feels to give of oneself, beyond just writing a check.”

            If these are your goals, then you’re not actually about helping, you’re trying to get something out of it as well. If you’re actually focused on what maximizes the benefit for people in need, volunteer tourism isn’t, in the vast majority of cases, the way to do it.

            This extends to local voluntarism as well. When I see law firms doing community service painting schools, I shake my head. For what a decent lawyer bills per hour, they could hire a trained painter for two days. They wouldn’t get the warm fuzzies of looking at the wall they painted (poorly), but the school would get a lot more (and better) painted walls.

            “It’s NOT always possible to get the help they need by hiring locally. There ARE thing that unskilled volunteers can do that can be of great help. Teaching English is a perfect example – how can you expect to hire local help to do that? These volunteer organizations provide an opportunity to bring in English teachers to needy communities that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for these teachers themselves. How is that wrong?”

            Quite apart from the question of whether some college student is actually particularly qualified to teach English, beyond the fact that he or she speaks it, you need to take into account local wage rates. In places like Kenya or Tanzania, teachers make $200-300/month. For the cost of the plane ticket there so an American can spend a week or two teaching English, that charity could hire a local teacher for half a year.

          2. You and I clearly have very different viewpoints on how to help people.

            What bothers me is your suggesting that only YOUR way is the RIGHT way. Write a check or you’re being selfish. Wow.

            Helping others is not a one-size-fits-all thing.

            Think about this: what if my nieces and their families already gave their planned financial contributions to charitable organizations, but then used the money they *would* have spent on just a vacation (giving money to airlines and hotels, NOT communities in need) and instead spent that money on one of these volunteer trips? Would THAT be acceptable in your book?

            Or is doing anything but writing a check just not good enough for you?

            As for what might have been more “lucrative” for my niece – not everyone wants to focus their life on how much they can earn. A person’s worth is not measured by their paycheck. You seem to be saying it’s selfish for her to take a less lucrative job that involves directly helping people, rather than working at something she may not enjoy but will give her a bigger paycheck so she can donate more.

            What a terrible way to think.

            I am immensely proud of my nieces for taking those trips, working hard at them, and finding inspiration and motivation through them to continue giving back. If you don’t see the value in educating and inspiring our young people, then really, we have such vastly different world views that I see no point in continuing this discussion. It just makes me sad.

          3. “This extends to local voluntarism as well. When I see law firms doing community service painting schools, I shake my head.”

            Me too. The company I used to work for was really into these “Company volunteer days” where we’d parachute into a school, paint a wall (badly) and then leave, never to return. We were required to participate, otherwise I wouldn’t have participated. If the company actually wanted to help, they would have donated money. Or, they would have found one of the many organizations that needs volunteers for untrained labor (like weed-pulling, donation sorting, food-serving, and heavy lifting). But that stuff doesn’t yield the photo opp with cute kids and paintbrushes that can go on the company website. And it’s a lot easier to get people with desk jobs excited about painting than about breaking down boxes or pulling weeds.

        2. This particular program does require some degree of expertise: “teaching experience, camp counselor experience, or teaching English as a second language certificate.”

    2. Glad someone else was thinking what I’m thinking. Many (not all, many) “volunteer abroad” programs are complete jokes designed to get money out of young people trying to pad their resumes or simply “feel good about themselves.” I’m talking about the ones that send kids with zero building experience to “build libraries” abroad (when local workers could be hired). Many of these just tear down the buildings the volunteers built and then collect $1,000 per person from the next group of do-gooders to build another structure on the same site. My friend participated in one of those and left half-way through when she realized what was up. Or the ones that place volunteers in “orphanages,” which is hugely problematic.

      I am NOT talking about organizations that bring skilled people to work with communities for lasting impact. And Geovisions seems to be more of a teach-english-abroad thing, which is probably harmless. But the message is the same: would-be volunteers need to do their research in advance about the experience and its impact on themselves AND the communities they want to help.

      Want to be selfless? Donate your MONEY to a cause that speaks to you abroad. And then help the local economy of the place you want to visit by traveling there, utilizing local guides (or a program that encourages homestays if you want a cultural exchange aspect), staying at small inns owned by locals, learning the language at a local school from local teachers, or heck just buying food and goods from local merchants. Or if you need more hand-holding, find a guided tour that employs local guides and prioritizes local businesses.

      1. Agreed. I suppose some of these companies that organize these volunteer trips are non-profits, but SHAME on the companies that are looking to profit off of peoples’ desire to do good, and even more shame on any companies like the ones you described that are total scams and don’t sound like they do anything that actually helps the communities where they operate.

        1. I had to talk a friend out of a “volunteer” trip that “toured” orphanages. I told her that a lot of those kids actually have parents and are essentially being “rented” and bused in by these “orphanages” to give westerners the feeling that they’re “doing good” by playing with these kids and speaking English to them during their 10-day trip.

          Even if it were a legit orphanage, how do people think that dropping in, playing with kids for a week, and then disappearing forever actually helps anything?

          1. Whoever sets up these kind of trips and “rents” kids for them is just plain sick in the head, and obviously will do anything for a buck. I have to wonder, with the $20 billion+ in foreign aid the United States gives out each year to these supposedly impoverished countries, where the hell does it all go? There is an old jibe about foreign aid – it takes away from poor people in rich countries and benefits the rich people in poor countries. Somehow our Congressional representatives never seem to get that message though.

      2. I agree with most of your comment. When my nieces were looking into doing one of these trips, they researched a number of these organizations, and found several that were clearly scams…or at the very least, focused only on profits and not on true humanitarian interests.

        The one they ended up with had a great reputation, and was very well reviewed by previous volunteers as well as the communities they worked in. The work they did was needed, and my nieces very much felt like they made a difference. So YES – anyone considering one of these trips needs to fully research them, not just for what the experience will be like, but for how well they actually serve the communities in which they work.

        The part I disagree with you on is that instead of doing these trips, people should only consider donating money and/or helping the economy through local tourism. I guess I don’t see why BOTH forms of humanitarian aid can’t be valid and viable ways to be selfless.

        The good pay-to-volunteer organizations have done much work to make their programs effective…and they can make a huge difference in a needy community for a very low cost, especially when they can make use of the helping hands of their young, energetic volunteers. And the volunteers themselves benefit in many ways as well – such trips can help guide a young person down the path of altruism that can last a lifetime.

        Don’t want to put your hands to work? Then by all means, send money. 🙂 That’s what I do.

        So, while I’m certainly all for anyone donating money and contributing to struggling economies, I fail to see anything wrong at all with these volunteer organizations (the good ones). Both are ways to help others…but this one also benefits the volunteers themselves. How is that wrong?

        1. I never said people should ONLY send money and then help the local economy via tourism. I never said good, well-vetted, effective pay-to-volunteer organizations are wrong. My issue is with the word “selfless.” The volunteer-abroad opportunities you describe are “mutually beneficial.” Not “selfless.” Many of those who volunteer abroad will say, “I did it because I wanted to have an experience and an adventure and to feel like I am helping, not just send money.” So they’re getting something out of it.

          There’s nothing wrong with an experience being mutually beneficial, as long as one recognizes that. The issue I have is with people saying they are being “selfless” by doing pay-to-volunteer programs and are automatically more altruistic for “putting their hands to work” instead of sending money or “just taking a vacation.” When, in fact, sometimes just sending the $1,500 the experience would have cost them (and letting locals and trained specialists do the work) is more efficient.

          But, at the end of the day, as long as no actual harm is done, I have no problem with people traveling/volunteering/spending money how they wish. As you point out, there’s a cultural exchange and enlightenment factor that comes with working with communities abroad. And most volunteer work, when it comes down to it, is never truly selfless. I’m a long-time trained volunteer at a local organization. The work is hard, dirty and not at all glamorous. It’s not the kind of work that ends up on Instagram. Even so, part of the reason I do it is to feel good about how I spend my time and to learn skills that are different from what I do for a living. Which I suppose is not that different from the reasons your nieces volunteer.

          1. Well I’m glad you recognize that ALL volunteerism is never truly selfless.

            I don’t consider these volunteer trips to be any more or less selfless than any other humanitarian type activities – even giving money. There are many ways to give back. And they are all, at least partially, for ourselves. But if someone is going to take a vacation, it’s certainly more “selfless” to take one that involves volunteerism, rather than one that only involves resorts and relaxing. (And that’s not criticizing those who take vacations! I do!)

            In the end, as long as we’re all doing *something*, we should feel like we’re making a difference.

            I also tried to articulate the concept that maybe dollar-for-dollar, giving money could have a larger impact…but there’s also value in educating, inspiring and motivating our young people. Perhaps if my nieces had taking a cruise instead of those volunteer trips, they wouldn’t have learned what it felt like to give back. Now, we have two young women who will devote a lifetime to helping others. So in the end, these trips resulted in far more benefit to those in need than if they’d just taken that money and written a check.

            Not sure how well I articulated that, but I tried. 🙂

            Kudos to you for all of your volunteering! I’m currently not in a situation to be able to do as much as I’d like – but I’m retiring soon and will then have more free time to do more.

    3. This is true of some programs, but not all. Not everyone with Doctors without Borders, the Peace Corps, or other programs that take volunteers overseas is paid, and not everyone in those programs is looking for a free vacation. Please don’t generalize.

      1. They may not be paid but as far as I know the travel and housing expenses are paid for every volunteer on Doctors without Borders and Peace Corps. They don’t pay for the privilege of volunteering but they do give a very large amount of their time (2 years typically in the case of the Peace Corps). Also, when did I say anyone was looking for a free vacation? I know a few alumni from the Peace Corps program and I am well aware that it is NO vacation at all. I wouldn’t last a week in the conditions they live.

        1. That’s not how you came across. You came across as suggesting that everyone who joins those programs is looking for a free vacation and that the programs mislead the people who join them accordingly. You were very snide about it. Again, generalizing about anyone’s motives can be very offensive.

          1. How did you get that impression? Please supply a quote. By no means do I think anyone in Peace Corps or Doctors Without Borders is looking for a free vacation, and I know it wouldn’t be any kind of vacation. Oh well, this article is more than two days old now, so who cares at this point.

          2. You asked: Also, when did I say anyone was looking for a free vacation?

            Obviously, you care. Here are a couple of quotes from you:

            “but this overseas volunteering concept is for the birds in my opinion.”

            “Whoever sets up these kind of trips and “rents” kids for them is just
            plain sick in the head, and obviously will do anything for a buck.”

            So this is how I got that impression – right from your own words.

  7. My guess is that Ms. James had an extremely sheltered childhood and still thinks of herself as a child. Unfortunately, I feel that this sort of thing will be more common in the years to come.

    1. I came here to observe the same thing. Ms. James’ persistent efforts to get reassurance from Geovisions makes it clear that she had so little experience in “adulting” that she had no context for what her time in Italy would be like. Why she chose to travel solo is a mystery; probably a friend or someone she looked up to had impressed her with tales of adventure, and she envied the ability to wow everyone back home.

      I have had occasion to lead other adults on backcountry expeditions, and have encountered highly anxious, highly unprepared participants a few times. They make trips a living hell for everyone (especially their guides — they are far harder to work than children because they generally have zero interest in learning self-reliance), and invariably end up needing to be rescued or extracted from the wilderness long before the expedition is supposed to be over. While I agree that some of these “volunteer” trips are scams, I nonetheless have great sympathy for the Geovision staff who had to deal with this traveler. One sign of a bona fide organization, by the way, is that they require you to have a certain amount of previous experience living or traveling in places far from your native culture, and/or with no mod cons, before allowing you to reserve your space. Ms. James should stick to large cruise ships.

  8. I suggest Ms Couch-Friedman obtain a dictionary before she starts using big words she doesn’t understand.

    Nothing in what she has described about this experience for Ms James suggests ambivalence.

    Ambivalence. : simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action felt ambivalence toward his powerful father ambivalence toward marriage
    a : continual fluctuation (as between one thing and its opposite)
    b : uncertainty as to which approach to follow ambivalence about their goals

    It does suggest fear and concern on Ms James part and a continued effort by geovisions to allay those fears.

    Was it a mismatch? That was obviously yes. Was the concern of Ms James ever addressed by Ms Friedman? That is a resounding no. Ms James clearly was not cut out for this experience based upon what we know but we are never told how the ‘reassurances’ from Geovisions may have further misled Ms James. From what we are led to believe she clearly was uncomfortable with the possible experience. We are never told what the advertising was like that perhaps misled Ms James.

    Yes, Geovisions should have probably not accepted Ms James. Once they did, however, they owed it to her to deliver all that they promised. We do not know exactly what they promised as that is not provided to us but based upon the quote from Mr. LeGrant it appears that they did not deliver what the promised. And apparently he also feels that Ms James was somewhat abandoned in a foreign country by his statement “I wish Emily had sat down with Sarah there in Italy. I am totally convinced something would have worked out for the best.”

    Ms James has a lot of fault here in my opinion. She clearly shows naivety that borders on immaturity. At 30 years old she should have been able to handle this better. However, that does not excuse Geovisions role in reassuring her and then failing to deliver on those reassurances.

    In the end I fault Ms James more for her ignorance of the situation. However, she is the customer and as such her perceptions are what matter and it appears that her perceptions are correct based upon all of the ‘reassurances’ Geovisions did. Also, Geovisions is the more sophisticated and experienced entity in this equation and as such should have been the leader to make sure that Ms James had an opportunity for a positive experience.

    If I had to guess what really happened I would say this… Ms James was immature and whiny and Sarah got irritated and basically abandoned her. That is obvious from the statement “Sarah texted saying that she left the bus schedule on the table in my apartment.” And I do agree that her age has nothing to do with this.

    What continues to concern me is the poor job that these ‘advocates’ do in probing and relating the stories. They are simply awful. They are incomplete and full of accusations that are never ever supported by the story being told.

  9. You went through 25 pages of correspondence? I hope you are being paid for the work you do. This woman is ridiculously childish and should not have even considered doing what she did.

    She could have simply used Google translate in her phone to talk.

    This is someone who needs to stick with trips in the US- she should not be traveling internationally by herself.

  10. Sounds like she really expected a cheap vacation, with “hand holding” to go with it. Sorry, but she’s not ready to travel, much less volunteer in a foreign country.

  11. James compares herself with a child. Not a bad comparison–a child who’s a spoiled brat. Boohoo, nobody to hold her hand, escort her everywhere, and insist that the natives speak English. This is volunteering??? I disagree with the comment that she’d be better off volunteering in the US. Her self-pitying attitude makes her unsuitable for anything of that kind. I also think LeGrant should have seen this coming.

  12. While this poor soul is a sad case, the organizers should have picked up on her issues and cancelled her involvement. I ran a national volunteer organization for years. Our vols made their own travel arrangements and got themselves to the venue for the event. We took care of everything from there.
    I did run across a couple of people over the years like this, and we were quick to gently ‘fire’ them. This woman didn’t even know what she had signed up for and was unable to even the most basic research. I’m amazed that she actually got to Roma on her own. Grownups do not cry themselves to sleep every night, they use their days to fix the issues.

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