6 months ago I left my home country of England and travelled by cargo boat across the Atlantic to start a new life in Buenos Aires. Having worked in the city of London, I had seen first hand the effects of corporate manipulation and greed, and in all honesty it had turned me off the idea of pursuing a career in such an industry. It was time for a change, and as my opening sentence suggests, a radical one at that.
The only commitment I had on leaving was a 3 month volunteering program for a charity called United Through Sport. I would be working in a program that aimed to teach and help children develop skills in sport, both in schools and out. As a great sport lover, and with a passion for English rugby union as bright as any others, I thought such a program would be the perfect start.
Unfortunately on entering the country, my grasp of the Spanish language started and ended with the ability to poorly pronounce the words hola and gracias. This coupled with my first encounter with the hostels day cleaner Chuni (whose grasp of the English language only equaled that of my Spanish) made me realise this was going to be an experience unlike any I had had before.
It became clear, even just through our volunteering induction, that the name United Through Sport simply does not do justice to the full breadth and scope of the charities reach. Whilst its founding principle was that through its use, sport could tackle underlying problems and unite communities through better social cohesion, it appears this principle is now only one of many. With programs now running in education, healthcare, construction and childcare it has taken on a much larger role, and is seemingly becoming more a community builder rather than just a supporter.
What was explained to us, and what became apparent to me is that the beauty of a volunteering based charity is that it acts as a cultural exchange. It is not only that the volunteers are able to help the lives of children and adults through using their experience, but also the reverse. As a volunteer you get to learn and eventually understand the different cultural realities and nuances that are often so alien to our own. Perhaps the most obvious of these being the concept of Argentinian time which can be frustrating when you first arrive.
The sports education program I was part of had me working in a school alongside a physical education teacher, in order to help with classes and contribute any ideas I thought might benefit the students. I was based at a school called Buen Consejo, where I taught and got to know 6 classes of around 20 students ranging from the age of 6 to 14 years. From designing your own games to focusing on a specific skill based drills, there really is great scope to use the knowledge you have and share it with the children
The vast majority of the children are from the shanty Villa 21 -24. This shanty is one of 6 in Buenos Aires and is the home to around 60,000 people. Needless to say living conditions and life prospects for those within the shanty are considerably diminished compared to the lives of the volunteers who come through the program. Things we take for granted often don’t exist there, and the initial shock you experience when you enter is one you can only experience first hand. More on this later.
At school the most notable thing that you first experience is how affectionate the children are. You are inundated with hugs and smiles and straight away are taught their unique way of greeting. Hola profe (meaning hello professor), and a small hand-clap quickly followed by a quick fist bump indicate that you are not only welcome but they are happy to see you. I found this act fairly overwhelming as not only had they straight away welcomed me to their group, but through such a small gesture they had made me feel part of it.
At break times you can sit and talk to the children, making the learning curve for someone with no Spanish very steep even if very difficult. Children here speak extremely fast and this along with this the fact that they are often not only from Argentina, but also Bolivia, Paraguay and Chile, means that understanding different accents also becomes part of the problem!
Often during break a child would finish with their juice box and throw it on the floor indicating the start of a quick pick up football game for those in the surrounding area. With so many children in the playground it meant that often you could see 20 juice boxes being hurled around followed eagerly by different groups of boys, all presumably imagining they were the next Lionel Messi or Diego Maradona.
I spent three months helping to teach football, basketball, handball, volleyball, and rugby. I was able to use and teach some of the skills I had been taught both at school and university, and it was an absolute pleasure to do so. I was also able to give the teacher a couple of useful drills and games he could use in the future. As a result of volunteering for an extended period of time I was able to form a strong friendship with said teacher. This was an added bonus, which certainly enhanced the whole experience.
As with all volunteering programs it really is what you put in you get out. I had some truly special relationships with the children because of both parties caring and wanting to take an interest. Whether it was teaching a few new English words at break times, or how to spin a rugby ball during class, the effects of a volunteering presence was certainly evident. The enthusiasm you show is automatically seen in the reaction of those you show it towards. There seems to be a certain intangible effect that can be quite profound even through such small gestures. Both child and volunteer can walk away greatly satisfied from the encounter they had just shared.
Having finished my initial program I was offered the opportunity to stay on with the charity as a coordinator. In brief this role essentially means helping new volunteers settle into their programs and being on hand to help them as and when is necessary.
I now help coordinate a childcare program, which has been built inside a soup kitchen in the heart Villa 21 -24. Comedor Evita feeds up to 300 families everyday and is run and maintained by dedicated local staff who realise the fundamental need for such a facility. Unlike the extensive (even if criticized) social welfare program found in the UK, Argentina offers very little in comparison.
Those in the shanty find themselves at an automatic disadvantage. Just by the mere fact of where they live they are often unemployable outside of their area code and have less access to good quality education and ultimately life. It is the work of places like Comedor Evita that allow many of those living in the shanty at least a few of our most basic human needs.
The childcare program is a relatively new initiative that gives children a safe and positive environment in which to learn and interact with each other. It allows parents who need to go to work a place to leave their children and also gives them the peace of mind that their child will be safe. During their time at the soup kitchen the children will also be fed, in some cases this being the only meal they receive that day.
Much like the school the children are always happy to meet new volunteers. Some of these children are from abusive homes, some are neglected due to their parents being reliant on either drugs or alcohol, and some are just very poor with no other place to go. Regardless, there is a great community feel between everyone involved, and gratitude shown towards all those who help however small. For example the Argentine practice of Mate drinking is often shared, which is one example of the cultural exchange mentioned earlier.
During my time at Comedor I have made strong relationships with both the children and the staff. Nelly who runs the soup kitchen is a true inspiration. Not only does she coordinate the arduous task of feeding 300 families a day, she also goes out of her way to help both the volunteers and anyone else who requests it. She does so with a smile on her face and an open heart, and as a result she is well known and well loved within the community, and rightly so.
I learn Spanish with the children through writing stories with them, or pointing at things of interest and asking what it means. My favourite pastime is standing at the fence, looking out at the traffic with a couple of them and carrying out said practice. You can’t get away with anything with children, who are so quick to pick up on mistakes however small. Due to my gringo accent and untrained ear, they either innocently laugh at you, or show their disappointment that you have simply not grasped at all what they are saying with an affectionate slap to the face. They have a unique way to make you feel very foolish when for example using the preterit tense when the imperfect was preferable. However it is all done with smiles and laughter and in all honesty I am very grateful for their help.
Comedor is an expanding project with great potential. Since I have worked there I have seen the volunteers renovate multiple rooms, including the childcare area. The rundown fence outside has been given a new lick of paint making a considerable difference to its outside appearance, and certainly making it more welcoming.
The concreted area outside has been dug up and re laid, so what once was an uneven and fairly dangerous structure is now a flat new surface for the children to play. Soon a new higher fence will be installed to prevent balls flying over into traffic meaning more outside sports and less headaches for volunteers. There are also plans for further expansion upstairs, to make a room for classes and other activities to be held for those who wish to attend.
Ultimately the goal of United Through Sport is to use the soup kitchen as a foundation to create a community center that not only gives a place for people to come but also opportunities they otherwise would not have had. Although it is in its infancy, it is certainly on the right track and it really is excellent to see the progress that is being made.
Pause for thought
Since arriving in Buenos Aires the British pound has almost doubled in strength against the Argentine peso. The effects of such a crumbling economy are startling when you compare the difference it makes to a volunteer and a resident of Villa 21 -24.
While as volunteers we can make light and chatter about the fact that we can now enjoy the finest cut of bife de lomo coupled with a bottle of red wine from Mendoza for the equivalent of 15 US dollars. Such musings are not even contemplated by those in the shanty. The effects of a failing economy are seen first and foremost in the poorest areas and it is no wonder that even long term solutions to the structural poverty that persists are hard to picture.
The contrast is so vast between those who have and those who don’t have, that I would postulate that it would be impossible for even the most cynical and most closed minded of westerners who visit, not to have their eyes opened to what lies on the other side of the fence. For me it has been the most humbling experience of my life, and as selfish as it may be, I take great pride that I am now part of a work in progress solution, that aims to make the lives of those involved at least a little better.
I must admit that I was and have been a skeptic when it comes to charities, especially having seen first hand some of the corruption that happens within large organisations. However through the experiences I have had and the people I have worked for this opinion has certainly changed. There is a great passion from the team here to make a difference and I am truly glad to be a part of it.