Voluntourism: A Hand Up or a Handout?

Philanthropic travel has significantly increased in popularity since my trip to Louisiana in 2006. Who benefits more from these programs – the tourist or the host?

Mardi Gras New Orleans
Reggie Bush and other float characters from Blaine Kern’s Mardi Gras World.

“Come on, Cher!”

Before I could object, I was pulled by the arm into the bar and marched up onto the stage. A harness was lowered over my head. It had a washboard attached that covered my chest.

“Une! Deux! Trois!”

The band launched into some rollicking zydeco and a pair of hands bearing spoons materialized in front of me. Rhythmically, vigorously, the spoons strummed my washboard.

Laissez les bon temps rouler.

St. Louis Cathedral New Orleans
Hurricane damage in the French Quarter was minimal. St. Louis Cathedral, New Orleans.

At breakfast the next morning my husband was still laughing about my misadventure on Bourbon Street the night before. I considered beaning him with a beignet.  He was still giggling as we drove to the airport. “If only you could have seen the look on your face!” Thankfully, he’s never learned to work a camera. We pulled up to the curb and he turned towards me. Taking my hand, he said “Have a good week. Be safe. Love you.” I pulled away from the departures level and headed towards Slidell to participate in a weeklong Habitat for Humanity build.

The Soniat House, New Orleans
The only evidence of the hurricane at The Soniat House, a luxury boutique hotel furnished with antiques, was a slight smell of mildew in my guestroom.

In the days, weeks and months following Hurricane Katrina I was plagued by a feeling of helplessness. And I was angry, because I think everyone – the U.S. Corps of Engineers, Louisiana policiticians, the residents of New Orleans – knew the levee system would fail in the face of a powerful storm and had done nothing to address its weaknesses. As I drove along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, I was dumbstruck that anyone could have possibly believed that the grid of earthen berms in the area would adequately protect the neighborhoods from surging waters. It was time for all of us to apologize and get to the business of putting things right.

New Orleans Katrina damage
A few blocks from the French Quarter there were no residents, only abandoned houses.

I sent checks and collected clothes, attended benefit concerts. I added my name to a volunteer registry, hoping to get an opportunity to physically do something to help. I started receiving calls about two months after the storm. “Would I be able to come to New Orleans and assist with cleanup efforts?” they’d ask. Volunteers were needed to muck out homes, businesses, streets. These volunteers would be required to wear protective gear and respirators.  ”Can you help us?”

FEMA Trailers
Undistributed FEMA trailers, a year after the storm.

I passed on these opportunities. I was afraid to put myself in harm’s way, primarily because I thought it would be irresponsible as the mother of three young children. So my helplessness remained, accompanied now by guilt. I wrote more checks and bombarded my legislators with pleas to aid the Gulf Coast. And then in November 2006, over a year after the storm, a call came that I was able to answer. Habitat for Humanity was active in Slidell, Louisiana. The city of 32,000 located about 30 miles north of Louisiana was devastated by Katrina when a 13-foot storm surge rolled through. Volunteers were needed for weeklong assignments to work alongside professional electricians, plumbers, carpenters rebuilding homes. I made flight arrangements and bought a tool belt. And almost immediately thereafter began doubting myself.  What kind of help could I possibly be? – To be continued…

St. Louis Cemetery No. 1
St. Louis Cemetery No. 1, eternal resting place of Voodoo Queen Marie Laveau.