Two weeks of volunteering in Bolivia

I’ve been living in Jupapina for almost two weeks now, but it feels like longer. I’ve met so many people (mainly children – it’s so hard to learn everyone’s name) and been kept really busy.

Volunteer-wise, I think it’s going pretty well. The first day was a bit overwhelming, as I learned about the three projects I’d be working on and found out that two of the three existing volunteers were leaving pretty much as soon as I arrived! That just left me and Laura (also from Manchester and here 3 weeks before me) and I think we’ve coped quite well – although to be fair to Laura, I’ve taken a backseat a lot of the time while she’s taken the lead with her superior Spanish. I also have to mention Justa, the volunteer coordinator, who has been incredible – not least because she’s juggling that role with her many other commitments and battling against illness for the last week.

So let’s go over the three projects I’ve been involved in:

1) Valley of the Moon Children’s Centre

We spend three days a week here, 08:30-13:00, during which we’re responsible for two hours of activities on two of the days. As above, I’ve not been that involved in much of the planning or explaining activities (yet), but it’s been a lot of fun interacting with the kids (as Tío, which means uncle, or Miguel) – particularly the obstacle course we did on my first day.

The rest of the time is spent either in the kitchen or with the pre-infant class. The kitchen is ok and you get double portions for lunch (not always a good thing), but you have to do things exactly as Maxima says or else you have to watch her redo them. I’ve only had one morning with the pre-infant class and spent a surprising amount of time trying to get them to eat. Playtime was great though and I look forward to more of it.

2) Albergue Children’s Home

This is a facility for vulnerable children who have suffered violence and abuse and they stay from anywhere from a day to three months. We’re also here three days a week, from 14:30-16:30. Tuesdays and Thursdays are spent in the classroom (with girls and boys separately) and we’ve been doing arts and crafts with them so far – making and designing masks in the first week and papier-mâché volcanoes this week. Wednesdays are outside and football is easily the most popular activity (and there are some really good players). We’ve also done a treasure hunt and some sports day type races (sack, egg-and-spoon, 3-legged) with mixed results!

The children are aged from 5 to 17, so it’s difficult to get activities to suit everyone, but they’ve generally responded well. The older girls seem particularly mature and have helped us handle the class at times (two volunteers with limited Spanish and 25 girls is a challenge!) The reactions of some of the younger children has been overwhelming and it’s amazing how quick you bond with them.

My highlight so far is helping Percy with his papier-mâché and getting his over-the-top gratitude and his secret handshake.

3) Porvenir Equine Therapy Centre

The start of my volunteering coincided with the start of a new 10-week cycle at Porvenir. 15-20 children (aged 2-16 with a variety of disabilities and behavioural issues) come to the centre three times a week, accompanied by various family members. Living with a disability in Bolivia can be challenging for the whole family, so this foundation is like a sanctuary for them.

The children each get 15-20 minutes on a horse and some receive physiotherapy and I’m told by the experts that some have shown remarkable progress in just two weeks. The rest of the day is an opportunity for everyone to enjoy themselves in what is an incredible setting – visually stunning and very peaceful, but also a very loving and supportive environment.

For the parents it’s a chance for them to socialise together, while there is lots to keep the children occupied (not least the dozen other children plus me and Laura). It’s a joy to watch the kids having fun, particularly for the parents.

Our role is nothing to do with the horses (obviously), but we help to ensure things run smoothly, help people get to know each other (using name tags and playing games) and keep them entertained (more games and even some yoga). A lot of my time has been chasing footballs to stop them going near the horses.

For the first two sessions, we were joined by some people from the department of human rights who spent a lot of time with the parents. Listening to them was quite emotional and highlighted how much this place means to them.

This has been the project where we’ve had the most time to spend with individual children and families, and again it’s amazing how quickly connections form. My highlight so far was during the sack race, when the girl with the most serious physical disability was helped by her dad to complete her turn and it literally brought a tear to my eye.


For those that are wondering what happened to the football coaching I thought I was going to be doing, it’s because the projects are prioritised and depend on the number of volunteers. But I’m happy and feel privileged to be able to work on the above projects.

Away from the volunteering, it hasn’t been too difficult to adjust to living in Jupapina. The main street has the daily essentials (although the butcher is hardly ever open when you need it) and Mallasa (where our midweek work is based) is not far away. I’ve also just discovered San Miguel’s MegaCentre and it’s only half an hour to get to La Paz.

The first weekend, I joined three others (Laura and an Australian couple, Megan and Dane) on a hike down from Muela del Diablo, which was largely successful until we had to cross the valley’s dirty river in our bare feet.

View from Muela del Diablo

This weekend we went into La Paz to see the University’s annual dance festival. It was essentially an endless parade of dancers and musicians down one of the city’s main roads. They had some crazy costumes, full of colour, and everybody was having a great time.

I’ve had two Spanish lessons so far, but I’m not sure my Spanish has improved a lot. Porvenir will provide me with the best chance to practice (so many nice people).

Looking ahead, there will be more of the same, but there are new volunteers starting this week, so I won’t be the new guy any more. I’ve got next Sunday and Monday off, so I may get away on a trip somewhere.

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2 thoughts on “Two weeks of volunteering in Bolivia

  1. Anonymous

    Well done Michael. You are doing a fabulous thing. Which I am sure you are gaining lots of enjoyment and fulfilment from. Lyn and Mike,

    Like

    Reply

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