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Brightly colored t-shirts dry under the hot Dominican sun. Photo © 2016 Nancy D. Brown

As I left the comfort of my air-conditioned bus, I followed a cobblestone street deep into the heart of El Javillar. A trio of young Dominican children laughed and played under the stream of a garden hose, finding relief from the hot carribean sun. Skinny dogs roamed the village looking for scraps of food. I smiled and nodded as I walked by. While I wanted to capture the gleeful moment with my camera, I reminded myself to be respectful of the people living in this poor community. This was my first time volunteering in the Dominican Republic and I was building visual memories, not photos to remind me of my good deeds while on a voluntourism vacation.

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On Ground Manager Ambra Attus and Yanilka Del Valle in front of the Fathom Wall of Gratitude. Photo © 2016 Nancy D. Brown

I was volunteering my time in the DR with Fathom, a different kind of cruise. The Seattle, Washington-based company offers impact travel opportunities in both the Dominican Republic and Cuba. Our children have participated in mission trips with our church to South Africa, Mexico and other locations. We have donated educational items, shoes, clothes & sports uniforms on past trips. This Fathom trip opened my eyes to giving your time, not things on vacation.

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“We do not encourage travelers to bring donations and we do not allow direct hands-off donations, as having travelers directly give donations to local beneficiaries create false expectations for kids and communities,” said Fathom On Ground Manager Ambra Atlus. “It is really not the best way to promote sustainable development, which is what we are all about.”


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School supplies donated at the Fathom Impact Center in Amber Cove. Photo © 2016 Nancy D. Brown

Nevertheless, if a traveler has brought something on the ship, they do receive donations at the Fathom Impact Center in port. It is then distributed to their local on the ground partners to be used for their programs in accordance with their recommendations and community needs; ideally connecting with their overall community development intentions. However, this does create expectations as well as dependency. Sometimes it creates competitions among the partners and also among the locals to get more donations. In actuality, the kids or community members may feel worse when those items aren’t replenished. Also, many times travelers bring donations that are not really appropriate or in line with Fathom programs.
“We do not encourage travelers to bring donations and we do not allow direct hands-off donations, as having travelers directly give donations to local beneficiaries create false expectations for kids and communities,”
The staff would really like to discourage travelers from bringing donations to the Dominican Republic, and instead encourage people to support doing what actually helps the most, which is to be there, to sign up for as many impact activities as possible, and embrace the experience. It’s best to give one’s heart, body and soul to the community work while working in Puerto Plata. Make an impact, give yourself to others. Leave a bit of yourself in the DR.


For myself, I want to return and continue the work where I left off. On my next trip, I want to bring my family with me and introduce them to the Dominican people and have them experience first-hand a real sustainable development effort.


Continuing to make an impact


The Fathom team does understand that people want to bring donations when they participate in volunteer travel because they want to help somehow beyond their participation in impact activities. While these efforts are appreciated, they want travelers to know that there are better ways to have a bigger impact or to continue having an impact after the cruise. Here is how travelers can make an impact beyond their trip:
  1. Come back on a Fathom Travel Cruise to the Dominican Republic
  2. Have 2 people from your circle join Fathom as well (relatives, friends, colleagues…)
  3. Donate online here, where you can donate towards a specific impact activity or support Fathom in general to pursue development of new impact opportunities.
  4. Most importantly, spread the word, let people know about Fathom and the concept of impact travel.

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“Many times volunteers want to give snacks or other donations to the people they are serving,” said Fathom traveler Kristy Mehner of Indianapolis, Indiana. “While this is well meaning, it can make them feel like they are less than others. It can also create a dependency rather than empowering them.”

Insider tips: To learn more, consider reading the book When Helping Hurts. For more information about volunteering in the Dominican Republic or cultural travel to Cuba check the Fathom website. For additional insider tips follow travel writer @Nancydbrown on Twitter or Instagram @Nancydbrown


If You Go:

Fathom Travel (855) 932-8466

Volunteer travel tips written by and photos courtesy of Travel Writer Nancy D. Brown of What a Trip, Travels from Northern California. I was a guest of Fathom Travel while researching additional articles. The post Giving Your Time, Not Things first appeared on https://www.nancydbrown.com.