Diana Jones - General Care Projects in Bolivia
My name is Diana Jones and I am 24 years old. I have just finished five years of university and have six months off before I start work, and so decided to embark on a two month Care & Community project with Projects Abroad. My initial aims were to work with children who have had less opportunities in life; to work in a third world country; to learn a new language; and to experience an entirely new culture. For that reason I chose the Projects Abroad Bolivia Care & Community project.
Description of placement
On being informed that I would be working at Maria Christina, a home for mentally disabled street children, I have to admit that I was filled with trepidation. Not only could I not speak any Spanish, but I had no experience working with children with disabilities. However, my initial fears were short-lived. On walking into the home, I was attacked with endless hugs and cries of "tia tia!" (aunty, aunty), and huge smiles! I immediately knew that I had chosen the right project for me, and I knew that not only would I love my time at Maria Christina, but also that I would find it incredibly hard to leave. Besides falling in love with the children at first sight, my other first impression was the poor condition of the home and the children.
Maria Christina is located in a fairly run down area of Cochabamba. The home has plenty of potential - there is not a lack of space inside, and there is a large garden, but it has been allowed to deteriorate and there lacks a homely feel about the place. The garden (despite us spending a weekend clearing it) is generally filled with rubbish where the staff try to burn everything, and we found numerous metal and sharp implements that should not have been there!
I really had very little to do with the staff for the whole duration of my time at Maria Christina. Despite there being numerous members of staff there every day, the majority spent most of their time in the director's office, chatting and smoking. Occasionally the nurses would help out with our activities in the afternoon, but generally only when it suited them. Sometimes one of the educators would help with the lessons in the morning, but normally it would just be one or two volunteers. With regards to the director, we rarely saw him, and he had very little time or concern for the children. My impression of the staff was worsened on a day out with the children where one of the children was lost and the staff were more concerned about losing their jobs than the fact that one of the children was missing!
As mentioned, I fell in love with the children at Maria Christina from the very first day, and despite the problems, the children and their attitudes made the whole project worthwhile. They should be congratulated on their continuous smiling, laughing and general happiness in what are far from ideal circumstances. So many of the children there have experienced things in their pasts we could barely imagine, and yet still have a lot of love in their hearts. I think what the volunteers perhaps found most difficult was to accept the fact that we were unable to implement major changes at Maria Christina, and that really we should just concentrate on improving the childrens´ days rather than their lives.
While certain children were always keen to learn and partake in the activities, there were others who were either more reserved, or more confrontational, and it would be a lie to say that we always found it easy to work with them. But it was this that made my whole time at Maria Christina more rewarding. Helping a child understand simple multiplication, or seeing the pride on a child´s face on creating something artistic, or simply having a hug and a kiss from a child was unbelievably rewarding, and we did notice major changes in their behaviour, in the sense that many of them really calmed down, as they realised we were there for them and that we wanted to help them and love them. This made it even harder when we had to leave Maria Christina.
In general, the volunteers would plan a week's activities in advance for the afternoons (we did general school work in the mornings) and we tried to have a variety of activities planned. Successful activities included colouring sheets, papier-mâché (if not a little messy!), mask making, hat making, jewellery out of pasta, making decorations for the room, games outside, chalk drawings, hopscotch, finger painting, tissue paper flowers and making musical instruments (though not if you had a headache!). Generally between 8 and 16 children would turn up, and we tried to round up as many as possible.
Because there were four volunteers at one stage, often a couple of us would play outside with those who didn't want to join in inside, which meant we were able to entertain more of the children. Occasionally day trips were arranged for the children, and one day the staff held a fiesta at Maria Christina itself, hiring a music system and having food and drinks, and the children really loved it - it certainly raised my opinion of the staff there. All of the above were not taxing activities, and did not involve a huge amount of planning on the part of the volunteers, but the results on the children were fantastic, and proved the value of having volunteers at Maria Christina.
I had no real expectations on embarking on my Care & Community project in Bolivia. Looking back, it has been two of the best months of my life, and I have learnt a lot about myself and about working with others. I am starting to doubt my future career as a lawyer, contemplating instead working with children! Despite my initial fears about working with children with disabilities, I did not find it a problem at all; but rather thrived on helping them; and their attitudes and personalities were inspiring. Working with other volunteers was a good experience, as everyone was able to contribute in different ways, and we really worked as a team at Maria Christina, all equally passionate about what we were doing.
I would recommend basic knowledge of Spanish for all volunteers, although it is not essential, and you do learn very quickly when you know nothing!
In terms of Maria Christina, the whole place needs changing, and it is not the volunteers who can do that. We were able to hopefully improve the childrens´ days, but for their lives to get better, more major changes need to be implemented from a more powerful source. Until this happens many of the children have no real chances in life, and will continue to live in basic conditions with very little love.
I have been very impressed with Projects Abroad´s approach to working at Maria Christina, and all their time and effort, provision of resources and general care for the project. If any volunteer ever has any doubts about working at Maria Chritsina, or with children with disabilities, I hope this report extinguishes such fears, as it really has been the most rewarding and fantastic experience, and one I will never forget. Thank you Projects Abroad!