Susan Phillips - General Care Projects in Mexico
Like a number of things in my life now, I seem to be working backwards. Many years ago my initial attempt to work abroad as a volunteer had been thwarted by a military coup so I threw myself into working as a Primary School Teacher in the UK. Life was busy until retirement.
By then, of course, the question had changed: why not volunteer? I had been fortunate in my work and now I had time to give a little back. Since retiring I have worked as a volunteer in the UK and abroad but this was my first time working with Projects Abroad.
Planning my trip
Last summer I decided that I wanted to volunteer in Mexico and to end my time there by travelling around the country. While still musing on the subject, a friend told me that she had booked a holiday to Mexico. Her return flight to the UK was 22nd November, the very same day that I was due to fly into Guadalajara. What synchronicity! I phoned the travel company and was able to join the group. Again, I seemed to be working backwards.
I had not expected to be following La Ruta Maya before beginning work. In retrospect, it was the best thing that I could have done. I learnt about the region and the Mexican people, about their history, traditions and culture. What's more, my fellow travellers donated all their small pesos to the lads at the centre.
At my placement
My first day began with a leisurely bus ride from Guadalajara to Guzman but then, like a whirlwind, it rushed by. Jose took me to meet my host family, Francisco and Candy. I just had time to say ‘Hola,’ and dump my bags before being whisked off to el Centro de Integracion Juvenil. There I met the nine young men with whom I would be working with.
After the usual questions: Where are you from? Does it rain in England? Have you met the Queen? I was rather surprised when one boy asked if there were any boarding schools near my home. Then it dawned on me that they were all boarders at the centre. When they discovered that I had worked with children and that I enjoyed Art, Craft and Technology they became very enthusiastic so I promised to organise a project that would include some model making. At this point Jose and I planned a shopping trip to find some of the things that would be needed. The donated pesos were soon being used to buy paper, tape, brushes, a cloth and a bucket.
Projects Abroad bought some new paints and Francisco was very helpful too; being a journalist he always had plenty of old newspapers to spare. By 3pm I was ready for the lovely lunch that Candy had prepared for me. When Jose returned I was taken to the language centre for my first Spanish lesson with Eli. Two hours later I returned home to rest but my day was not yet over. Jose returned once more to explain which bus to catch and to show me the route to walk from the bus stop to the Centre. My evening was spent planning my first day at school and doing my Spanish homework!
Teaching at el Centro de Integracion Juvenil
Each morning I caught the 1A bus to the purple house, walked past the tortilla shops, the pork butcher, the vets, and paused to look at Volcan de Colima, before turning left. At the Centre I was able to help the lads with their English, their history and social studies but I found the mathematics too difficult because I couldn't read the questions!
I was able to observe some therapy and socio-drama sessions with one of the doctors and join in with a volleyball skills lesson. For me the craft lessons were fun and the lads enjoyed them too. I asked them to imagine that they were about 25 years old. What would they like to do? What would they like to be? There was a carpenter, a doctor, a skier, two rappers. The lads drew pictures and planned their models.
The following day they started to plait strips of newspapers to create the bodies for their models. The maize flour paste, which was prepared for us by the kitchen staff, was used to soak sheets of newspaper. Strips of paper were used to bind the models. The characters began to take shape. Left to dry in the heat of the Mexican sun, the models were ready for painting by Monday morning. Three days later we held Expo Guzman.
Some time for relaxation
On Saturday morning I had time to wander around the town square, visit the markets and enjoy browsing the shops in Guzman. Francisco and Candy took me to one of their favourite restaurants for lunch. I was delighted when Francisco invited me to join him on Sunday on a photography trip to visit the wild country of Las Piedrotas and the beautiful old towns of Atacco and Tapalpa. It was a photographers' paradise and I really enjoyed the company of Francisco's friends from the Guzman Camera Club.
Some afternoons after work, after my Spanish lesson, I would wander into the town for a delicious ice cream or a relaxing coffee. It was quite amusing to be looking at the glittering Christmas tree in the square and listening to Jingle Bells from the shops while sitting outside the coffee shop wearing cropped trousers and a t-shirt!
My last days in Guzman
Before leaving the UK I had bought a book called, 'The Day The Ground Shook.' My intention was to read the story to the youngsters and use the ideas about an earthquake to inspire them to write their own stories. The only problem was that the book needed to be translated into Spanish. I borrowed a massive dictionary and set to work.
With help from Eli, I achieved a passable story and by the end of the second week the lads had also written and illustrated some story books for young children. As the stories were about their own personal problems or disasters, I left the books for the Doctor to read. On the final day the lads sang a song and wrote farewell letters. I felt sad to be leaving, but when I read the message from Dannel, it said “Gracias por revivir mi creatividad.” I could have wept!
My Spanish had improved enough to understand. Thank you for reviving my creativity.
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.