“Volun-tourism” is a fiercely debated topic, but no matter which side of the issue you stand on, you’ll probably agree that what our contributor, Laura Underwood, did in Kenya was a leap of faith.

And so, this post about her experience working in an orphanage doesn’t address whether or not short-term volunteers have a place in developing nations — we’ll save that for next time.

Her story is about something even more nebulous: luck.
— Editor's Note

 “Your eyes are going to be blown wide open”.

As I stared out the plane's window, my brother's words replayed themselves in my mind, competing against visions of Masai warriors and a safari that I was sure would bring me up close and personal with the entire cast of the Lion King.

I was going to Africa, Kenya specifically, and although I'd be volunteering in an orphanage for a week, when I shared my plans (to anyone who would listen) they sounded more altruistic than they were-- I had no expectations beyond an adventure in a new culture.  


Fast forward ten days: I definitely got my cultural adventure. I saw a Cheetah catch its prey mid-stride, conversed with Masai villagers and was treated to breathtaking landscapes. But those experiences will be cherished memories, not life changing events. Instead, it was the gift I received after one hesitantly made decision that was, and continues to be, the eye-opener my brother had predicted.

The orphanage I came to know was a better place for its tiny residents than the alternative -- but that doesn't mean anyone should ever grow up in those conditions.

The children living there on the edge of a slum were no different than the children I went to elementary school with, yet I could instantly see that the odds stacked against them were innumerable and, most likely, insurmountable. I have worked hard to get where I am today, but the fact that they were living there and I was not boiled down to nothing more than pure luck.

It might have been the guilt that drove me to do it, against all of my better instincts. But when Jack asked me, "I take pictures?", I said yes, gingerly draping the strap of my precious camera around his neck. Though my camera means a lot to me, I didn't want to deny the kids anything that might inject a little happiness and excitement into their lives.

After a few nervous hours and more than a few sideways glances at the camera, I stood side-by-side with Jack, thumbing through the moments he'd captured. And that's when I realized that what he put into my hands was more than worth any temporary anxiety I had suffered over the fate of my camera. Jack had given me a true gift: the opportunity to see the world through his eyes.

Jack's fellow residents grinning, running around their home, posing for the camera are captured alongside quiet moments of children taking care of each other, and loving openly as they welcomed myself, and my fellow volunteers without question into their heartsOne glance at the photos and it was clear these were not unlucky victims of circumstance, but strong, happy and curious children. 

Travel, and this moment in particular, has shown me that no matter how the world perceives us, as "haves" or "have nots", we all laugh, love, and cry through our highs and lows. 

And so I'm proud to pass on Jack's gift, so that you too can see what life looks like when you laugh with ease and live with a happy heart, regardless of your luck.

Story and accompanying photos via TLTM Contributor, Laura Underwood, and edited by Laura MacLeod. (Yeah, anyone named Laura pretty much rules)

Click on an image below to scroll through the whole gallery.


Our contributor visited Kenya through International Volunteer HQ, where she had the opportunity to live with a family in the outskirts of Nairobi and volunteer at a local children’s home prior to touring the country for the remainder of her stay. 

If you would like to donate to the children’s home featured in this story, please reach out to the author directly at laurabunderwood@gmail.com.



Sit tight, the full "Travel More. Kenya" guide is coming soon.

In the meantime, check out the Kenya Gallery for more visual inspiration from Laura's trip.