Heather Darling - General Care Projects in Bolivia
With no real grasp of the Spanish language, or lengthy experience of working with children, it’s true to say I was a little apprehensive before arriving in Bolivia. I had no idea what to imagine really but the country, and everything about it, more than surpassed my expectations. When I decided to go abroad to volunteer I had been graduated from university for 2 and a half years already which worried me slightly. The majority of other volunteers are either out of school or just finished university but I quickly realised that age doesn’t matter, those who choose to volunteer all have the same mind-set and desire to see the world while helping out where they can, so you’re bound to get on well together.
In actual fact I met two other volunteers in their 60’s too! It’s a real mixed bag which is all part of the enjoyment and experience. Why I chose Bolivia I can’t really explain, it just seemed to jump out at me. I’d always wanted to go to South America and the fact that Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in the continent; I felt that my help would be most beneficial there. It’s also a little less often travelled than some other countries which definitely made my time there feel more ‘real’. Cochabamba has very few tourists so I had a great insight into Bolivian life and was able to meet some really interesting local people; this was one of the most valuable things about my experience.
My Care Placement
My volunteer placement was at an orphanage called Cuidadella. There are around 90 children living there from age 3 to 18 and they live in 7 different ‘casitas’ (little houses), with 10-15 in each. Each casita has its own ‘Tia’ in charge but they don’t have the time to give the children some much needed one-on-one attention, or just to have fun with them, so this was my job. Working there was so rewarding, and this was all down to the children.
For my first few weeks I did find it quite hard to settle into my work there. When I began to learn of the children’s difficult backgrounds, and other details of their lives, it was hard for me to imagine what difference I could actually make. But I realised that just by being there, by giving them some quality attention, organising a game, or simply giving huge hugs and hi-fives when you arrive, is what they need.
On a usual day I would help out from 8.30am to 1pm, after which most of the children went to school, and I went home to my host family for a big Bolivian lunch – the main meal of the day. In the mornings I often found myself in the Guardaria helping with homework. Mathematics was a good one to start with as, when I didn’t know many Spanish words, I did know the numbers and how to say add, minus, multiply and divide. Other moments were filled with painting nails, making bracelets and dancing - nail varnish definitely became my best purchase. I painted at least 5 girls' nails a day, literally, and sometimes the boys too!
A few weeks in I began to sleep over at Cuidadella around once a week. As homework and cleaning tasks are usually over by the evening it was the best time to just have some fun. We would make cakes, do craft activities, chat about the differences between our countries or just simply dance! One night, the children realised I knew the words in English to the Grease mega mix and I was made to sing along, very loudly, and dance with them all so they could learn it too! Normally singing in front of anyone like this is my worst nightmare but here it was just so funny. The way the children manage to stay happy almost all of the time, helps you to feel the same way too - it’s inspiring.
I was also given lots of independence in my work at the orphanage. For example, on a couple of occasions another volunteer and I would organise lessons for the younger children in the kindergarten. It was a little chaotic but really great fun. The more initiative you have to try new ideas the better for the staff and children and also for you to enjoy the experience. It is really rewarding when your idea works out, but can also be funny when it doesn’t!
Often the children do not leave the orphanage much, other than to go to school so I also organised to take two groups of children to the cinema on weekends. Although a little stressful, they clearly appreciated it. When one child told me she had never been to the cinema before it all seemed well worthwhile. It also helped me to feel much more like a local in Cochabamba. I was very proud when my new grasp of Spanish allowed me to ask for, and receive, a discount buying the many tickets. In fact being with children is also the best possible way to pick up a language fast, learning the important words anyway like ´tareas´ (homework). Although the language barrier could be difficult at times, it was also an ice breaker. As long as you don’t mind being made fun of, or laughed at a little, confused attempts to make conversation actually help the children to like you, and I’m very grateful for their help.
One of the best pieces of advice I could give to anyone thinking of working with children is just to get stuck in. At first I was a little shy with the children but as soon as I started acting a bit crazy, or letting them make a fool of me, we were on track!
It was a fantastic experience and I was incredibly sad to leave. However, I am still in touch with many people at Cuidadella and hope that I can continue to be of help to them, and maybe even return, sometime in the future.
My Bolivian Host Family
Another reason I enjoyed my time in Cochabamba so much was my host family. Their house and hospitability really did become a home away from home. All the families who take volunteers are so accepting of us and are very quick to help with everything, from finding your way in the most obscure parts of the city, to finding medicine for a bug you might have picked up!
While I was living there Bolivia celebrated Dia de la Madre, and Dia del Maestro (Mothers’ and Teachers’ day), these are both big days for the country, and I was involved in anything my family had planned. Even when my host sister celebrated her 10th birthday after my first month, the question of whether I could come to the party was met with ‘of course, we want you there, you’re part of the family’. Being immersed in their lives was a lovely experience and one very different from my life in the UK; it was fantastic.
Travelling after my placement
Despite the fact that the other volunteers and I had managed to fit in lots of travelling on our weekends, after my 3 months there was still so much I wanted to do in Bolivia. My original plan had been to travel for another month and head up to Peru. However, after falling completely in love with Bolivia, the three of us decided we would spend another 2 and a half weeks exploring the country.
It was so much more enjoyable with the understanding and empathy we had developed for Bolivia, and with our new found grasps of the Spanish language! I didn’t know any of the other volunteers before I arrived but by then we were firm friends and travelling together just seemed really natural; don’t let the worry of going alone bother you, there are so many different volunteers out there, so you can always find someone to talk to.
I did make it to Peru, but just for 2 weeks in the end! And, although I loved it there too, as a friend in Cochabamba said on my last day, it’s Bolivia that will always have a special place in my heart.
This volunteer story may include references to working in or with orphanages. Find out more about Projects Abroad's current approach to volunteering in orphanages and our focus on community-based care for children.