Skip to page content

"Orphanage volunteering broke me. Now I want to warn others of the risks": Peggy's Story

Orphanage Tourism

"Orphanage volunteering broke me. Now I want to warn others of the risks": Peggy's Story

In November 2012, I walked out of Kathmandu airport and stepped into a sea of people, minivans and taxis. The chaotic scene was overwhelming. It was exciting too, but I was relieved to locate the transport that the volunteering agency had arranged.

I was unaware of any risks. Looking back, I’m disappointed at how unprepared I was. Unfortunately, the reality wouldn’t match my expectations. It’s only in recent years, reflecting on that trip to Nepal, that I’ve come to think about the risks volunteers can be exposed to. And how, inadvertently, volunteers like me can do more harm than good.

High hopes

For me, it started as a mission of hope. I hoped to help the children in the orphanage. I hoped to leave a lasting impression. But instead, I feel I left them with empty promises. I let them down.

After a short orientation day at a primary school, held by the partnering volunteer agency, it was clear that I was going to help at a private orphanage run by a Nepalese family. When I arrived, I got to know the children quickly. I walked them to and from school, helped them with their homework and their English. I was also encouraged to play with the children and help out around the orphanage.

I wanted to maximise my time there, so spent my days painting the house, gardening, cleaning and buying things for the orphanage. I tried to ensure the orphanage was stocked with daily essentials.

With one caretaker and ten children living there, conditions were extremely basic, with no running water, no plumbing and no electricity. My goal was to make the orphanage nicer for the children.

That first visit to Nepal in 2012 sparked a genuine desire to help the children. I returned four times. Each time, it became increasingly clear that things weren’t right. The money given to the orphanage never seemed to have an impact. On my last visit, I was shocked to see how much the children’s home had deteriorated. It was infested with rats.

I didn’t know then that orphanages are often profit-making businesses that can exploit children. I hadn’t seen the research that shows even the best ones still fail to give children the chance to grow properly. How could I know that by volunteering in an orphanage, I was fuelling a system that channels welfare support through institutions – instead of going to families?

Hidden dangers

Many volunteers, including myself, leap into volunteering with limited country and cultural knowledge. Many are young and inexperienced. My trip soon taught me that support from travel companies can be minimal – or non-existent.

I thought I’d checked all the boxes before I started my volunteering trip. But I discovered the volunteer VISA I’d been told to purchase is illegal in Nepal – I could have faced criminal action. The agency I used quickly distanced themselves after I’d parted with my money. Responsibility was not on their agenda.

As part of my volunteering experience, I also asked people and organisations for child sponsorship. Now I realise it wasn’t helpful, as child sponsorship in an orphanage setting doesn’t fix the problems.

Helpful hindsight

The pain of knowing that I thought I was doing something good and instead contributed to a cold-hearted business, and most importantly disappointed innocent children, has left me genuinely broken. It also affected my relationship and my life.

My volunteering trip to Nepal was certainly life-changing, but not in the way I expected. I’ve spent the last four years campaigning against orphanage volunteering and voluntourism, to try to rectify the mistakes I made back in 2012. I want to encourage others to learn from them.

I wish I’d considered the risks more carefully. Personal, profound damage can be done when you set out to help but end up feeling you’ve done more harm than good.

My parting advice? If you really want to make a difference, do your research, please. Don’t travel as an untrained volunteer. Get educated, collect work experience, and use your professional skills to contribute to a healthy, sustainable future for children around the world.


We'd like to say thank you to Peggy for sharing her experience. We believe she was let down and exploited by a system based on profit rather than knowledge, care and dedication to the best interests of children. Together, we’ll continue to campaign for the vital change needed to get children out of harmful orphanages and into loving family care.