Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Gracias for everything, Bolivia

I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, for the first time a year ago today. Having never volunteered in a developing country before, my first 3 month volunteer placement with the ChildFund project was a hugely formative experience for me. With the support of my incredible Team Leader, Sarah Cassidy, and two amazing Bolivian volunteers, Inti and Angie, I grew to know and love La Paz and the ChildFund project so much that I decided to return in the Spring (or Autumn in Bolivia!) as a Team Leader myself.

First day back in La Paz in March, with the other Cohort 8-9 Team Leaders (except Karina, sorry!)

Over the past 6-7 months, I have led 2 teams of UK and Bolivian volunteers on the ChildFund: Childhood and Youth Empowerment Project. We have focussed on two main areas: health and education. Working with children and young people of all ages (from 0-18!), we have explored and made progress with human rights related themes such as multiculturalism, gender equality, self-esteem, among others. Throughout all our work, we have taken a holistic approach working with local communities, ensuring that the volunteers' contributions are as relevant as possible, and build upon the excellent work of the local educators in the ChildFund centres.

Cohort 8 raring to go! Angie, Eilidh, Inti, Me, Jade, Adam, and Ana :)

With cohort 8 we began work on an Oral Health Module, requested by ChildFund. Since then, we have completed the module and submitted a Spanish translation for local educators across all of Bolivia to use. Cohort 9 volunteers Richard and Jess, along with local volunteer Alejandro, made a significant contribution to completing this on time. This is a huge achievement and the long-term impact of this could be considerable. ChildFund centres across Bolivia reach a huge number of children and young people and from information provided to us from the Bolivian Ministry of Health, we know that Oral Health is an important yet overlooked area in the country. ChildFund focusses on empowering children so that they themselves may become effective agents of change in their own lives; it is through educational modules such as the Oral Health module we have just completed that vulnerable young people across Bolivia may have a greater awareness of their rights and access to health services.

Alejandro, Richard, and Cohort 10's new Team Leader, Alejandro Calderon teaching the kids to "cepi, cepi, cepillar los dientes"!

Two very happy girls receiving their family pack of toothbrushes for them and their siblings to use

In addition to this work, another main area of support provided by ChildFund volunteers has been in the area of gender equality and community. Working with teenagers (mainly girls, some boys) in peri-urban areas of La Paz, we have had the opportunity throughout the past year to work on themes such as sexual health, gender equality, roles in the community, and most recently we have been building up to a photography exhibition, part-funded by the International Service ICS Alumni Small Grants Fund, on the theme of gender roles in the community. This event is a great chance for the teenagers to express themeselves and their reality in a safe space. Cohort 9 volunteers Valentina and Dalanda quickly made close ties with the teenagers and the local educators, and the progress made with this area of the project far exceeded all our expectations. We hope that the exhibition raises more money for the centres so that beyond our time here, we may still contribute to supporting the work of these centres.

Me, Dalanda, and Valentina saying goodbye to Julieta from our Niñas Villa Fátima centre

This is just a brief summary of some of the work achieved over the past few months. New Team Leader, Alejandro Calderon, is a passionate, driven person, who I am confident will lead the new ChildFund team to achieve even more.

Farewell meal with the Cohort 9 team and Cohort 10 Team Leader, Alejandro.

It turns out that 3 months was not enough, and nor were a further 7. Despite having achieved a lot throughout this year with 2 committed and hard-working teams of volunteers, I know that the work will not stop just because I am leaving to return to the UK. This is a bittersweet moment; despite heading home to the UK, unsure of the next challenges and opportunities life may throw at me and part of me wishing I could stay, building on the relationships and progress made, knowing I have played my part in something much bigger than myself or bigger than the teams, or the ICS programme itself, is something I am proud of, and grateful for. I always remember this quote from Alejandro Sawa: "Me siento orgulloso de ser una gota de éste océano." For anyone considering volunteering, be that in a developing country, at home, or abroad: do it. Whatever challenges you may face, you will learn so much, both about yourself, other people, and most of all, you will learn that however small your part, you can contribute something to things you care about.

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