Visiting an Overseas Orphanage? Advice.

I have visited orphanages in India and Myanmar, and we will continue to do so regularly. Volunteering to visit and to do work for orphanages (minor repairs, manual labor, etc.) is becoming a more common thing for Americans to do on vacation. In fact, an American newspaper article I read on the flight back from Myanmar said congress is considering a bill that would provide grants for such trips.

Visits to these orphanages are life-changing, pleasant, and so delightful it's overwhelming. We've visited well-run orphanages, so the children are happy, full of life, and so loving that you'll regret every complaint and every unkind word you've ever uttered. However, they are also awkward. There you are, standing in front of anywhere from 15 to 100 children, none of whom speak your language, and somehow, you're supposed to find a way it interact with them. Here's what I've learned so far.

1. Learn Something Before You Go

Ice breakers are awesome. On our last trip we had a juggler. He wasn't going to be hired in Vegas any time soon, but he could juggle three balls without dropping them, and, most of the time, juggle one behind his back or under his leg. The kids loved it, and they were happy to ask about juggling and get brief lessons through a translator.

Know a good card trick? Make sure it takes minimal explanation, because communication, even with a tranlator, will be a problem. The kids should be able to easily see that you just did something amazing. The greatest difficulty you'll have is in doing it over and over and over again, because the children will love you to death even if you have no tricks to offer them.

Anything else that's entertaining would be great. Getting past that initial awkwardness is the big thing. Once you break the ice, the children will carry it from there.

2. Games That Worked

We played a lot of games with the children. The following were all great successes.

And of course they all love soccer. At one orphanage I played with the boys and all the girls came out to watch. There were a lot of kids, and it was a little crowded, so I did pretty well. At 46, I'm especially skilled at running in slow motion, but without much room to move no one could tell.

3. Pictures

We go to places where it doesn't snow, so I got out my laptop and showed the children pictures of snow. I live in Rose Creek Village, so I showed them pictures of my children and other children in the village. The pictures are stunning to Myanmar and India children, because almost all our children are white with hair of several colors. All the children at the orphanages I visit have black hair and dark skin. (I'm half-portuguese, and I'm always looking for a child that's only as dark as I am to compare arm color with. I've found several.)

We visited a missionary family with four children. I got my laptop out and showed them funny pictures I'd picked up off the web over the previous few years. I have some unusual car and plane crash photos, as well as some funny pictures of people in unusual situations. It was a blast to hear their group “Ah yo” as I switched to each new picture. It's hard not to laugh even as I write this. I'll bet pictures of extreme sports and stunts would work, too, as well as unusual and strange-looking animals.

You can play music on a laptop, too, and dance for them! Twice we did some dance instruction; one of those times it was even me who gave the instruction, and I can barely do any of the Irish dance I taught them. That was a major, major hit. They really loved that.

4. Toys

First of all, these aren't American children. They're grateful for anything. You'll feel like a complete heel as you remember the complaining you've done when you didn't get just what you wanted. So there's some real flexibility here. Even the older teenagers are genuinely happy and will line up to get anything you'll give them. It's so adorable you'll be longing to take most of them home with you.

However, there were some definite favorites. They were so delighted with these that I can't put them in order of favorite. These were all especially fawned over.

In Myanmar, most of these could be bought. They didn't need to be brought over.

Finally, balloons! Balloons were a big, big hit in Myanmar. Apparently, the children really only see balloons at Christmas, so we got an instant Christmas feel by breaking out balloons, which, as you know, cost no more than about a penny each. Great bang for your buck.

Bigger, heavier balloons, like some they make that children can blow up and sit on, can be used for outdoor volleyball. You don't need a net. At one orphanage we lined up all the children's sandals as a line. It was so much fun that the orphanage directors started playing. At one orphanage, where there was a bare room with no furniture and nothing on the wall, I was the net. I got down on one knee and spread my arms. I was beat half to death by children trying to slam a balloon over me, but it was so much fun I didn't notice how sore I was until the next day.

Any Suggestions?

If you have any suggestions, email me. The best way is to go to

If you traveled with me to Myanmar, then you may especially have suggestions. Don't hold back. Thanks!