Confronting the Truth about American Volunteerism


Volunteerism is often celebrated and it should be! Each moment we take out of our lives to help someone else is significant, considering that we are not obligated to do so. Though volunteering is a selfless act in nature, care must be taken in how we approach it. It is easy to have underlying thoughts of pity and self-righteous feelings due to being someone else’s saving grace or a part of the solution to a huge problem. In some settings, this results in a power imbalance that affects decision-making and relationships, especially when helping in an environment with low resources and a lack of professional hierarchies. Though there is no cut and dry way to avoid this, it is helpful to educate ourselves and confront the reasons why this happens in order to reduce the phenomenon in the present and future. 

Renee Bach is an interesting case study of this problem. Ten years ago, Renee left her home in Virginia to start a Christian nonprofit in Jinja, Uganda. This charity, Serving His Children, started out as a feeding program serving free hot meals to neighborhood children twice per week. Eventually, she was asked by a hospital staffer to nourish severely malnourished children back to health with her feeding program. Because these children were already stabilized, it was most important that they were being fed on a regular basis. Seeing that this was a prominent need in the community, Renee converted Serving His Children into a nutrition center and medical clinic for malnourished children and mothers. 

To mark the turn of her feeding center into a clinic, the facility was stocked with doctor prescribed medicine and medical gear such as IV catheters, monitoring equipment and oxygen tanks. At its start in 2011, it housed 3 nurses, no doctors, and was serving patients beyond the scope of malnourishment with very complicated issues such as stage 4 HIV, pneumonia, intestinal parasites, and dehydration. Though the nurses were sometimes of service to Renee, some volunteers and observers report that she was often making medical decisions herself. At 22 years old with no college degree, no medical training, and without a single doctor staffed at her clinic, she gave a blood transfusion to a 9 month old baby who ended up having a severe reaction. Luckily, the baby survived after being rushed to a hospital where there were health professionals equipped to handle the emergency. Still yet, Renee was making decisions that she was not qualified to make. The consequences of her actions affected not only her patients, but her clinic in the long run. 

Because of the controversy plaguing the clinic, it was shut down in 2015 for inspection and never reopened. Renee is now facing a civil lawsuit to be held responsible for the deaths of two children who died while at Serving His Children. Though obviously well intentioned, she failed to recognize what she was actually qualified to do and now must suffer the consequences. It is important to state that we cannot hold Renee personally accountable for 100% of the deaths in her clinic. Many of the children in her care were very sick and may not have even survived in a specialized hospital. The truth is, we’ll never know.

One of the reasons that she failed to recognize the inappropriateness of her actions is partially due to the fact that the American role in relation to developing countries is usually the savior and fixer. Renee even acknowledged this herself, saying “I definitely went to Uganda with, you know, the mindset of a white savior. I think it's impossible to say that any person coming from a developed country, such as America, going to a place that would be considered underdeveloped, such as Uganda, wouldn't have a bit of a white savior complex. You know, your desire is to help. I don't think that's a bad mindset. I think it's how you live that out," she added. "And it was a quick turnaround for me to realize that I'm not needed here.” Contrary to her opinion, it is obviously a bad mindset. Growing up in the public school system, it was pounded into my brain since grade school that we are one of the best countries in the world and our victories and triumphs meant that we had the rights to anything and everything we wanted, simply because we had the power to do so. This anything and everything included being the saviors to black and brown people who needed to be “civilized”. This is literally what transpired in the Age of Exploration: European explorers invading occupied land, declaring it theirs, and taking it upon themselves to spread Christianity as a means to civilize the inhabitants and give them a better life. This sense of entitlement is an American legacy and clearly affects the way that we as Americans interact with others from developing countries. It empowers us to do more than we would in an American context. It’s why teams of middle and high schoolers travel to developing countries to run medical clinics. It’s also why so many Americans run to fix problems in other countries instead of their own because they believe they have the agency to do so. 

I understand the desire to travel and volunteer. I have been on two missions trips (one to Haiti and another to Guatemala), and another medical trip to Nicaragua. I understand seeing a need and wanting to help address it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. Yet, I feel that we need to confront our own biases and be realistic about our own limits before we do so. Plus, what good is that desire to go across the world and help if we can’t extend a helping hand or support to those who struggle in our midst, in our very own country? We cannot be oblivious and think that epidemics such as homelessness, poverty, and hunger only occur in developing countries. That is a privileged mindset that too many divulge in.

Clearly, these biases cannot be erased overnight. There will never be enough organized cultural training to help confront them. As we encounter new cultures, countries and people, bias is something that we actively have to think about and work to change in ourselves. This way, volunteering becomes more helpful than harmful in the long run.


Olivia O’Leary