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How Mother Teresa's work spurred growth of 'voluntourism'

Mother Teresa's Nobel Prize winning mission in India has prompted many people to work short missions and 'voluntourism' into their lives.

By Staff writer / August 26, 2010

Nuns of Mother Teresa's order, the Missionaries of Charity, and Roman Catholic priests say a prayer beside the Mother's monument in her native town of Skopje, during a ceremony to mark the centennial of her birth, on Thursday, Aug. 26.

Boris Grdanoski/AP

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When Mother Teresa began her work with the poor of Calcutta, she also opened her doors to drop-in backpackers who wanted to volunteer. One of those was Susan Drees Kadota, an American, who spent 2-1/2 months bathing, feeding, and simply talking with disabled residents.

Ms. Kadota connected with one young woman, who, because of a physical deformity, had been turned out by her family. "You know," she told Kadota, "it’s really nice just to talk to people.”

Kadota took it as a life lesson: “Taking time out of your so-called busy life to be with people is important and useful.”

Mother Teresa may be remembered most today – her 100th birthday anniversary – for her lifelong work with the poor. But she also helped expand the modern notion of going on an overseas mission, encouraging ordinary people taking short breaks and volunteer on vacations.

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The new volunteer model

As a young woman, Mother Teresa joined a Roman Catholic religious order that sent her on a mission from her homeland in what is now Macedonia to far-off India. She went on to found the organization Missionaries of Charity to offer palliative care to those cast away and dying on the streets of Calcutta.

She faced criticism over the years from those who said the work did little to address the root causes of grinding poverty.

But she mostly attracted international acclaim, eventually winning the Nobel Peace Prize. As her fame grew, she opened her work to the hundreds of annual volunteers of any – or no – faith often coming and going unannounced.

The model shares some similarities with a wave of modern missions abroad, including short-duration service or evangelism trips, Catholic lay missionaries, and even the secular trend of "voluntourism." While there is some unease about the sustainability of and what can be accomplished in shorter-term mission work abroad, proponents point out that it often leads to more substantial volunteerism and has cross-cultural benefits.

“Mother Teresa’s program was a precursor to VolunTourism,” says David Clemmons, founder of voluntourism.org, by e-mail. “There was no grand, long-term commitment. The program was crafted to allow for movement and flow of volunteers. And if individuals wished to volunteer for a day or two and then go sightseeing elsewhere in Calcutta … they were free to do so. In this way, Mother Teresa was ahead of her time.”

Voluntourism and short trips: modern missions?

Voluntourism became a buzzword in 2005, says Mr. Clemmons, and polling indicates significant interest. A 2008 poll by the University of California at San Diego found 40 percent of Americans willing to spend several weeks on vacations that involve volunteer service, and 13 percent willing to spend an entire year.

Christian missions, meanwhile, have grown over the past 100 years. Data from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity in South Hamilton, Mass., shows the number of missionaries sent in 2010 stands at 400,000, compared with 62,000 in 1910.

“There’s certainly a lot more people who are doing shorter-term missions,” says Bert Hickman, a research associate with the center. “People still go for a lifetime. [But] some people go intending to go for a lifetime, but for whatever reasons they decide to come back to their home country – where that wouldn’t have been an option 100 years ago.”

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