From Student to Teacher to Nutritionist, Overnight
These blogs are getting harder and harder to write. Now that I have had a somewhat-normal schedule for a while, there is less to talk about! I am still really enjoying my time in Mendoza (not to mention, it is finally Spring here and the weather is PERFECT every day!), and I have been trying to stay busy seeing and experiencing new things because I know that my time abroad is quickly coming to an end in the next few weeks (I have just over a month remaining in Argentina!). I realized this week though that I have neglected to tell you all about one of the most rewarding experiences that I have had thus far in my semester abroad (and honestly, one of the most rewarding experiences I have had in my life!): my volunteer work in Mendoza.
IFSA-Butler offers volunteer work as part of the program. It is typically not for credit, it is just an opportunity to become more involved and to give back to the community. There was a meeting at the beginning of the program with the volunteer director, and she told us about all of the volunteer opportunities that we could do through the IFSA program. I was really excited to assist either music or English classes in an elementary school. To make a long story short, there were two “absolutely mandatory” dates that we had to be available in order to ‘apply’ for the volunteer program and to learn about what exactly we would be doing. The first “absolutely mandatory” day was less than one week later, and I had already planned well in advance to attend the international bass convention in San Juan on the same day (I had paid for registration, bought my bus ticket, paid for my hotel, and made arrangements with the other students to go together). I spoke with the volunteer director, but she made it clear to me that there were absolutely no exceptions to missing this day. That week was filled with emotional distress, contemplating whether I should skip the bass convention in order to attend the 15-minute interview or forget about the volunteer work for the entire semester. I finally decided that the bass convention that I had been excited about attending before I had even arrived in Mendoza was more important to me than a volunteer program that seemingly did not need my help very badly to begin with if they could be that strict with dates/attendance.
I wasn’t satisfied with just throwing the idea of doing volunteer work out of the window though. I wasn’t allowed to participate with the IFSA program since I had missed the interview, but I was confident that there was something out there with which I could help. I contacted my resident director and asked if he knew of any other organizations that needed volunteers. He sent me the contact information of an IFSA alumnus who lives in Mendoza now and has started a non-profit organization here, and so began my life-changing experience.
The organization for which I volunteer is called Fundación SERVIR, and the main objective of the program is to offer extra-curricular education to rural communities that don’t otherwise have access. At this time, the organization offers free weekly computer and English classes to children, adolescents, and adults in the rural, wine-producing, extremely poverty-stricken town of Ugarteche, about 45 minutes South of the Mendoza capital. I help out on Monday nights with the “teen” English class. Technically, the class is for kids ages 11 to 15, but there are kids as young as 7 and as old as 18 that show up wanting to learn. I help teach the class with the IFSA alumnus who helped to start the program. Although I was really excited to help with this project, I was extremely nervous when the other volunteer asked me to plan and lead the second class! We don’t have a strict curriculum, but I was supposed to come up with activities/games/worksheets that incorporated 12 new vocabulary words and helped teach about the culture of English-speaking countries. I am far from a public speaker, especially when it comes to speaking in Spanish to a bunch of native speakers, but the class that I had planned went surprisingly well, as the kids were very receptive and patient with my terrible Spanish, and it certainly gave me a boost of confidence to continue to help teach.
The kids in the class are absolutely incredible. They are extremely hard working (similar to their parents, many of which work long days in the fields harvesting grapes), always polite and well-behaved, and are truly excited to come to English class and learn something new (some of the kids have to walk over a mile in order to get to class). One seven-year-old boy always arrives to class 15 minutes early (which is unheard of in Argentina…), always with a huge smile revealing his four missing front teeth, and immediately begins to help us assemble the tables for class (class is held in a soup kitchen that is only open earlier in the day). At the end of the class, every student comes up to the other volunteer and myself and individually thanks us for the class and tells us goodbye. I always leave Ugarteche feeling extremely blessed for all that I have, and feeling so lucky to have had the opportunity to meet and work with these indescribably inspiring kids. The town of Ugarteche is obviously very different from the capital of Mendoza: most houses have tarps or cloths for a roof, and the brick structures are falling apart. There is a large dirt field next to the soup kitchen, where a group of kids (and sometimes adults) are always playing a game of fútbol (soccer) with a ball that has clearly seen much better days. Seeing the rough conditions in which many people live is not something completely new to me, but I have never had the chance to personally meet and work so closely with this type of community.
Last week, the founders of the organization asked me if I could help with a nutrition and well-being workshop that they are offering next weekend to the adults in Ugarteche, as well as a sports class for the kids at the same time. For those of you who know me, you already know that I have always been fascinated with nutrition, and was 100% sure that I wanted to major in dietetics instead of music until just before applying for college. I eagerly accepted the ‘nutritionist’ position for the workshop. I won’t actually be able to attend the workshop due to our IFSA excursion to San Rafael that weekend, but I am helping three other volunteers to find materials (and translate them if they aren’t already in Spanish), create games, and help design the class. I am excited to see how it turns out!
In the States, I have never had opportunities such as these. A music student planning a nutrition class and teaching an English class speaks a great deal as to how much volunteerism is needed here. I can’t wait to spend more time in Ugarteche in the upcoming weeks, and I am confident that this experience will not only help my confidence while speaking to a large group, but it is also a wonderful opportunity to practice Spanish and to be reminded as to how lucky I am to have the life that I do.
Unfortunately, my camera hasn’t made it to Ugarteche, but if I decide to bring it sometime, I will definitely share pictures!