Volunteering

In August 2011 I had the pleasure and the chance of participating as volunteer in a 2-weeks program in a school of Caracas in Venezuela…one of the best experience in my life… this is my story… 

Proniño is a program sponsored by Telefonica which has been in operation in South America since 2005. It aims to support and help local NGOs that work in schools and its main mission is to eradicate child labour (Proniño is aligned to the International Labour Organization whose objective is eradicate all child labour worldwide by 2020).

I’ve been selected to take part in the program in a small village in Venezuela, named Petare, which is part of the Caracas’ municipality. I’ve been working with 9 other colleagues from Telefonica Spain, UK, Germany, Nicaragua, Chile, Brazil and Venezuela. All together as a team we have supported the local NGO Oscasi which has worked in the area since 1958. Specifically, we have worked in the school “El Cortijo” where 80 kids every day attended the program for two weeks.

No words and pictures can perfectly describe all emotions and feelings that I’ve personally felt while working there, I left for this adventure with almost no expectations and no experience with kids, just few ideas of what I could have done. Once landed in Caracas I met 9 other volunteers and a few volunteers and employees of Telefonica Venezuela who gave us a warm welcome. I’ll have to admit that it’s not been easy, especially the first couple of days, lots of new people, a different language, and above all a tough environment. The village where we worked, Petare, is currently one of the most dangerous areas in South America. Life over there is very cheap, meaning that people lose their life for nothing. Given the way of life the environment we worked in was very challenging. Bodyguards have been our best friends for 2 weeks, they never left us alone.

One of the keys to success of these types of projects is the quality of the team you are working with, my team was fantastic, 10 extraordinary volunteers, very motivated and ready to give 110%. Almost immediately we felt like a family. We had one day to know and familiarize with each other before starting working in the school. On our first day in school we only had 40 kids, but the number rapidly increased to over 80 because the kids spread the word in the village and started bringing friends, brothers and sisters.

Two very intense and unforgettable weeks, during which we have performed many different activities: this was a summer holiday for the kids, a way of keeping them happy and busy with cultural activities and above all off the street.

Dancing and singing was a daily performance to warm up the group before breakfast. On Monday each volunteer introduced himself/herself with the flag of their own country and a few words explaining why we were there and what our expectations were.

The daily itinerary had already been organized by the NGO, we gave our support and also proposed new ideas we thought would be of value to the project. However it is very difficult to organise the day as the kids only wanted to play, be it football, volleyball, basketball; playing sport is what they loved the most. So, we organized a few tournaments rewarding the winners. This motivated the children and gave them a sense of achievement. It also taught them to play fair and in a more organised manner.

Several outdoor activities had been planned by the NGO but unfortunately due to organizational and security reasons we had to cancel them and reschedule the days. For example we were advised that there were member s of the circus attending to perform for the children in the school but this was cancelled due to lack of organisation which was disappointing for the children. However, the following day we brought the kids to the cinema where they watched “The Smurfs”. Here they received a few gifts, free coca-cola and pop-corn. They were chuffed and had a great day. We were all so surprised at how easy it was to make them happy and it certainly made up for the disappointment the previous day. Another day we went to the Art National Gallery for a guided tour: the guide took the kids through the history and meaning of the most relevant paintings and at the end of the visit there was a creative area where they got to colour in a picture of a famous Venezuelan painter.

The following day we went to a public garden were we spent the whole day: after the dancing and singing we attended a lesson in the planetary where they learned about the solar systems and the stars. It was a very interesting experience, even for the volunteers. Later in the afternoon we took the kids to see the small zoo in the garden, mainly birds.

Back into school, we organized a couple of classes but we really struggled to keep the kids seated for more than 10 minutes. Having volunteers from so many different countries was an advantage as we decided to setup language lessons. We split the kids into 4 different groups and organized classes of English, Italian, German and Portuguese. It was a success and the kids loved it……. for 10 minutes. They started running outside looking for footballs.

But life is not only games and fun and we wanted to talk to the children about important things: we gave a brief overview of the most important values in life. We talked about the family, love, friendship, respect for other people and the environment. I personally realized that this was not easy; these kids were born and are growing up in a tough environment. Many of them have no parents and scenes of violence are generally a daily occurrence. It comes as no surprise that the children had violent tendencies and at the end of this lesson a kid threw a rock at a young girl, making her cry. We felt like our lesson hadn’t been listened to at all.

Painting was another way of keeping kids pretty busy and happy so we printed black and white pictures representing the world and asked them to colour in the countries we were coming from. This was a good exercise to teach them some geography. These kids go to school during winter but they do very little, just some reading, writing and maths. Most of them didn’t know where Venezuela was on the map and quite a few asked us what the blue area represented.

We also organized two sports days, a circuit made up of different activities that needed to be completed in the quickest time possible: kids were split into different teams and the best teams were awarded with prizes. It was a great fun.

On the last day we decided to clean the school. Cleaning the school was set as main activity for the day and we involved all kids and teachers working in the school. We explained the importance of having a clean school and of living in a clean environment; this is why we asked everybody to collaborate with us.

We also organized a small party and gave a few gifts to the kids, pictures from Madrid and Dublin, key rings from Brazil, few footballs. We also had a gift bag for each kid containing 2 notebooks, pencils, rubber, sharpener, pens and colours. It was a very simple gift but they were so happy. It was a happy day but was also our last day and when we were told we had to go we really didn’t want to leave. Few kids started crying and it wasn’t easy for us to say goodbye. We all felt very very sad.

I have some very fond memories of this trip. One of my best memories is the daily arrival to the school. The kids eagerly awaited our arrival and as soon as the door of our van opened they all started laughing and jumping on us. It was a pleasure for us to arrive at school.

One of the kids had been very clingy to me for the two weeks, on the last day he came with his mum and brought me a little gift and a card saying: thanks for everything and I’ll never forget you. I felt very emotional and I really appreciated this gesture.

This has been one of the best experiences in my life, I’m happy with the chance that was given to me and I’m proud of the experience I’ve had. I hope those kids will have the opportunity of having a normal life because they deserve it. I learned a lot from it and from the kids too, we went there with the idea of teaching them something good but I think they taught us what life really is. I will never forget them and their big smiles.