Getting involved in your study abroad community!
I talked about cultural events in Mendoza in my last post but I am by far not the most cinematic or artsy person. I do really enjoy community service however. Coming from a background of spending my free time doing community service at my university, I was excited to find that I didn’t even need to ask what was offered here; IFSA already has relationships with certain organizations here in Mendoza and while you can look for community service on your own, you can also try out the opportunities they offer. From IFSA, we were invited to help out in an education facility for adults with special needs, reading books aloud in English to help extend the auditory book collection for students who are blind at one of the universities, a knitting club of sweet Mendocinas who create absolutely incredible blankets and clothes for children in nearby hospitals, teaching English class at a local institute and helping out in the warehouse and at other events of a food donation NGO here. It was a difficult decision, but I ultimately ended up choosing to work with the NGO, named El Banco de Alimentos and later joined the knitting group too. Despite translating to “The Food Bank,” El Banco de Alimentos is a highly sophisticated and intricately-designed organization. There are 16 of them across Argentina, all opening as a response to the 2001 economic crisis which worsened the already struggling food bank system. It was begun by a group of entrepreneurs using their business assets to help feed the hungry and poor. It has now expanded greatly, receiving donations from many sectors of society, working with grocery stores to lessen food waste, involving the community, feeding those most vulnerable to under- and malnutrition and educating other organization on food storage, handling and distribution.
As a volunteer, I help organize the food received each week, whether in boxes sent out to food banks holding everyday necessities like toiletries and cleaning supplies or organizing and repackaging donations that arrive in poor shape. These jobs may be simple, but they’re very important in ensuring things are running smoothly and efficiently. I am happy to see how the public can get involved with this process and my fellow volunteers are some of the best parts. Not all of them are Mendocino, some coming from Germany as part of a government program and others are retired Canadians living in Mendoza looking to help out. It’s fantastic to hear about their culture, backgrounds and opinions and practice Spanish (and a little French, German and English here and there) as we do our work. El Banco de Alimentos is so involved that they literally have events every week where, instead of paying cash, people are asked to bring non-perishable food. I helped collect these for a big week-long classical music festival and Mendoza’s Fall Marathon for Life. I think this has provided me a special experience in practicing Spanish. Most of the time I’m here, people either know or realize I’m foreign and speak slower or louder or in more simple words so I can understand… or at least have more patience. Dealing with the general public when they simply don’t care you’re learning Spanish and are in a hurry or are simply trying to get their tickets means a lot of people get frustrated and don’t try to make it easier for me to understand or try to understand me. It could be difficult because I really wanted to be doing a good job and help them, but sometimes I just literally didn’t know the words. I came to accept that pretty fast and took it as an opportunity to challenge myself by not shying away from such a difficult test of language. I often get the feeling that people would prefer to talk to someone fluent, but I nevertheless enjoy the experience and everything seems to work out in the end. To make things even better, I was allowed to translate El Banco de Alimentos’ website to English and having never worked in translation, it was really fun! I had no idea, but going from Spanish to English is WAYYYY easier! Plus, by reading literally everything on their website to do my work, I became well-acquainted with its history and goals and love the organization even more because of it. It will truly be sad to leave it in just a month and a half.
While a smaller aspect of my community service, I will also surely miss the knitting group where I get to see some of the sweetest, most loving and funny women get together, each working towards a compassionate goal. I had no idea how to knit before, but they taught me and I am hoping to have at least one item completed to donate by the end of the semester. Their caring words and cute conversations paired with cookies, cake and mate make Mondays not as bad!
Whichever program you choose, I really think volunteering is a great way to get to know your community in a much different situation than at the universities or even school clubs as well as practice Spanish with a whole other sector of society that you otherwise may not meet!