Thursday, November 12, 2015

Youth Empowerment work in Bolivia by Caitlin Molloy

Its week 7 of 12 here in Bolivia and its hard to know how to coherently describe the experience so far. With regard to the volunteer work, I’m one of 12 volunteers working in the Youth Empowerment team in La Paz. We spend our time working in two children’s centres located just outside the centre of the city in Las Lomas and Alpacoma, two areas in which growing up can be dangerous and where opportunities for young people are few. Our work consists of delivering workshops around the subjects of human rights, nutrition, English and empowerment as well as working in the kitchens to help feed the hundreds of children who pass through the centres everyday.

Our feelings about this work however are less easy to describe. Before arriving here, I know that most of us had quite realistic expectations about how much of an impact a group of untrained volunteers from the UK could make on a developing country in only 12 weeks (not a huge one). Despite this though I think a part of us all expected to be able to see that we would be making a tangible difference. This is what I have struggled with the most during our time here, the impact we’re making here has been difficult to see clearly. There is the feeling that our sessions are not getting through to the children and that they could be better planned and delivered by a trained Bolivian worker who has a more in depth knowledge of the problems faced by the youth we are working with.

I have feared that the biggest beneficiaries of this program are not the children we’re working with but us, the volunteers. Every day we spend here we are supported in learning new skills, practising a different language, travelling to new places, meeting people from a different culture and having our minds opened by new experiences. All in a country where most people don’t have these opportunities. For these reasons, every day here we are also acutely reminded how fortunate and undeserving we are. These reasons have made it difficult for me to be proud or confident that we are making a positive impact.

Over time however I have started to change my mind. The task of trying to ‘empower’ children with short attention spans and dissinterested teenagers has resulted in some unique and special experiences for all involved. I can see that whilst we aren’t going to leave in 5 weeks time having dramatically changed the lives of the youth of La Paz, we are at least going to have positively changed some days in the lives of some of the youth of La Paz.

The engagement with the volunteer programme is empowering children in ways that are becoming less elusive to me. To give some examples from sessions my group have delivered, the children have thought about friendship and how their words can be powerful through sending supportive messages tied to balloons to strangers who might be suffering human rights abuses. Through making Native American dreamcatchers for their bedrooms they have learnt about other belief systems and have learnt that they are cared for whilst they sleep. Through playing and laughing with volunteers from another country they have felt valued and interesting.

I can now see that human development work could never be about making huge changes in 12 weeks because lives aren’t changed that quickly. Despite the problems, by the end of our placement I am confident that us and the children will have a collection of empowering and positive memories to treasure for the rest of our lives.

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