Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A reflection on volunteering during the financial crisis

Though there are signs that the major economies of the world have avoided economic collapse, evident economic concerns loom over the more developed economies and emerging markets and everyone inbetween. Repercussions of these macro-economic effects will affect our most vulnerable.

The current situation presents a challenge and an opportunity for future volunteers in Argentina or anywhere for that matter. It will be a challenge to find the resources to travel abroad and focus on others. Nonetheless, it may be important to remember that helping others empowers us too.

The opportunity is a chance to re-invent ourselves. Times of immense vulnerability often require doing things you would not normally do. Find solace in giving to others, even in very simple ways. You just may realize that it makes a world of difference.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Progress at Crecer con Amor, Second Addition Almost Done

As you have seen in previous blog entries, Crecer con Amor is having a busy 2008. Two volunteers, Charlotte Demole and Briar Loewen, organized events and raised donations that contributed to the construction of a new classroom at Crecer for the 4 and 5 year olds (blog entries in February and March 2008).

As mentioned as well earlier, a former volunteer, Tammy Chen, enlisted her uncle, Amine Darrous, from New York; in a campaign to build a second floor addition to Crecer con Amor. As you can see, the project is progressing rapidly. The space will allow for three new classrooms to be created for the 6-12 year old students of the center. This is great news because it allows for increased privacy for each age-group to work (before they shared an open space) as well as the former classrooms located downstairs at the center will be converted into a new space for cultural activities, workshops, and even training programs.

The director, Jacqueline Marquez, was all smiles when I visited last week, as I often do. She is excited about the changes, working hard to keep things moving (inflation and labor is sometimes inhibiting), and imagining what it will be like with more space to work with the surrounding community.

As I often reiterate, the small efforts by former volunteers as Social Ambassadors and other friends of these Argentine organizations, goes a long way toward empowering communities to respond to their citizens and young people. Though just a small building project, the completion of this new addition to Crecer con Amor will help the organization receive an increasing amount of young students while continuing to build and support their individual development. They are the future of Argentina, as Jacqueline would say.

English Women's Rugby team volunteers in Argentina

18 Women Rugby players descended on Buenos Aires in early June 2008 for four days of volunteering with Virreyes Rugby club, located outside the capital in the district of San Fernando, Greater Buenos Aires. Virreyes Rugby club works in close collaboration with the Mother Teresa school. The school was founded to provide much-needed educational support and contention for the growing poulation of young people from the neighboring low income community. Founded by professional ex-rugby players, Virreyes teaches rugby to young people as well as organizing workshops and tournaments.

After the school year ended, this London-based Women's Rugby club contacted HelpArgentina. They wanted to travel together to South America to participate in group volunteer work, preferably with Rugby. HelpArgentina organized over the course of four full days that the team would volunteer at the local school in the morning and play rugby with the kids in the afternoons. Though they were able to volunteer only a short time; their days were nevertheless full, the weather cooperated, and more than one hundred energetic kids ran circles around the women's rugby team and vice versa.

During the final day of volunteering, I accompanied the group. In the morning, they worked with one of the professors at the Mother Teresa school to make a collage with pictures and artistic designs for the children as a gift from the group to the school. During the afternoon, the rugby club organized a round-robin tournament where the women rugby players/volunteers coached and played rugby with the kids.

It was a wonderful experience for all parties. The kids presented the volunteers with "thank you" cards that they had written and the women's rugby team posed for numerous photos to close out the day.

Already feeling part of the community, these women athletes were invited to a traditional Argentine barbecue (asado) with the staff of the Virreyes club on Saturday and concluded what was a short, but very rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

University of Virginia Springbreakers build in Argentina

During the first week of March 2008, 11 Springbreakers from the University of Virginia, USA, descended on Buenos Aires and HelpArgentina to work with a member organization, Sagrada Familia (Sacred Family), to build "two new additions" to the small homes of two distinct families' in the greater Buenos Aires region.

Arriving in Argentina on a Friday, these eager college students participated in an orientation with HelpArgentina before heading the following Monday to begin work in a small, rural, and very low income neighborhood in Tigre, a community that attracts many tourists for its proximity to a delta of the river Parana.

The project was slow at the start, but as the week progressed, the students and a routine developed they got to know the community and the families whose homes they were renovating. I visited the group on their last day. To say the least it was a very inspiring day.

Arriving after about an hour and a half of commute, I reached the volunteers who were working laboriously on the two different projects. One of the projects was to build the basic structure of a separate "one room" home on the property of a big family of at least 8. By the end of the day, the skeleton of the home was completed, the floor boards were laid, and the roof and walls were constructed. (The final product was to be completed by Horacio Fish, the on-site leader and carpenter from Sagrada Familia).

The other project was an addition to the home of a single mom and her two young children. The group finished the general structure and laid the the floor boards as well as the sun went down that Friday afternoon. This addition would be a new kitchen for the family, a well-needed expansion to her humble home.

It was neat to hear about and see how the group came together over the course of the day and the week. It was evident that this was a great team-building experience for the group. Also, you could see a glimmer in their eyes as they interacted with the community and families. They joked, played with the local kids, and often engaged with other locals, who were curious about what was going on.

As the day came to an end, the group was treated to cookies, medialunas, and mate as well as a special performance by 4 local children (one whose home they had renovated) from the community in a show of thanks for their efforts throughout the week. These young kids, dressed in traditional garb from northern Argentina, danced a series of dances to the applause of the UVA group and the others who joined them from the surrounding neighborhood. After hugs and kisses and long good-byes, the group from the University of Virginia followed the dirt road out of the neighborhood, dirty and tired, but visibly grateful to have been able to provide a modest boost to these two local families.

Working with the group this day, it was wonderful for me to see how valuable this experience was for everyone. Though it may seem like just a little gesture to some, the efforts of this group, like so many other construction projects of this nature going on in the world; mean a lot more to those that it is helping than one may imagine. The smiles on the faces of these families, particularly the single mother of two, brought a tear to my eye. She thanked the group with hugs and kisses, and though she was quiet and very shy, you could see that this small act provided her with a well-needed boost to keep dreaming and fighting to provide a better life for her family.

Though successful in material terms for the end results that were fulfilled, clearly, the human dimension and inter-cultural exchange that ocurred reflected on a much deeper level the value of finding simple ways to support and empower others. Simple acts of kindness are all that is needed to make this world a better place.

New Addition to Crecer is finished!

As of a little over a week now, Crecer con Amor is using its new classroom for more than 30 little four and five year olds.
I know that Monica, the staff member who uses this new space, is extremely pleased with it. Its something she has been needing for at least a year now.

Crecer con Amor is now starting its second construction of what will be a second floor addition. It will be used for training courses, education, and other activities. As I mentioned before, a donation from Amine Darrous, the unlce of a former volunteer, is the reason this great project is happening. It is an exciting time at Crecer con Amor!

As this next project unfolds, I will keep you posted.


Thursday, February 14, 2008

New addition to Crecer con Amor in progress!

As I have mentioned before, HelpArgentina works with a model that encourages foreigners, ex-volunteers, Argentines living abroad, and many others; to become 'Social Ambassadors' for organizations in Argentina.

InsightArgentina, the volunteer program, has enjoyed great success since late 2006 working with ex-volunteers to raise money and awareness for their host organizations in Argentina. Further, HelpArgentina's Comunidad sin Fronteras (Community without Borders) works directly with all of these donors and Social Ambassadors abroad.

I introduced to all of you, Crecer con Amor, in my last blog. Jacqueline and her dedicated staff are working to make the community stronger by supporting young people between the ages of 1-13 in their lives and through education. They have received more than 30 volunteers from Insight since late 2006. Many of those same volunteers continue to be in close contact with the staff at Crecer.

But beyond the close contact and strong relationships that has developed between volunteers and the Crecer staff, there is a visible 'giving' that has ocurred most recently through individual volunteer initiatives. Aware of the need at Crecer con Amor for a new classroom space, two of our past volunteers have made incredible contributions.

Charlotte Demole, from Switzerland, spent two months at Crecer in 2007 and returned home to raise enough funds to help the organization begin the construction of the new 'classroom.' (Pictured above) Particularly, this new classroom will house the currently 'overcrowded' group of 4 and 5 year olds, who have been lacking space since late 2006. Excited and very grateful, the staff of Crecer is preparing for this important change and allow them to respond effectively to the increasing needs in the local neighborhood.
Another exceptional volunteer, Tammy Chen and her uncle, Amine Darrous, have also contributed to the above construction, but more importantly, they have donated the funds necessary to construct a 'second floor' to the Crecer building. This new space will be built during 2008 and will provide a new space for the many adolescents and adults in the community who would benefit from job training workshops as well as other educational activities.
I do not have photos yet of this second floor project as it has not started yet. But when it does, I will share them with you.
In conclusion, I would like to thank both Charlotte, Amine, and Tammy for their truly inspiring initiatives to support this wonderful community center. Like many others, they are true Social Ambassadors for Crecer con Amor and their impact will be felt into the future.

More updates coming. Peace.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Crecer con Amor (To Grow with Love)

Though the name may sound corny to some when translated into English, it is certain that Argentina needs more organizations like Crecer con Amor! If each organization put forth the love and caring that this little youth-based community center does on a daily basis, Argentina would be transformed overnight.

This small organization has a tremendous story. It has been built up from scratch by one Argentine woman, Jacqueline Marquez, against all odds, but with the support of many others since the economic crisis in Argentina in 2001-2.

Today, January 29, 2008, I went out to Crecer con Amor with a future volunteer from Estonia. Yep, you heard right, Estonia. Awesome.

Listening to Jacqueline speak about Crecer and its transformation never gets old. From her tiny office, tucked away in a small corner of La Loma, outside Buenos Aires city, she speaks fluidly, passionately, and with a sparkle in her eye (Photo: Jacqueline with volunteer, Matt Bennett).

If I were to describe Jacqueline, the following words would come to mind: courageous, determined, disciplined, un-wavering, compassionate, loving, caring, selfless, and one-of-a-kind.

As Jacqueline speaks about the unfolding turn of events that gave life to her special place for young people in La Loma, you cannot help but feel inspired. Her story and the story of her organization and its people show us that anything is possible when you lead with good intentions and compassion for others, and trust in the perfection of things.

Currently, more than 150 young people from the ages of 1-13 frequent Crecer con Amor each day to participate in a variety of educational activities. Crecer can best be described as both a before-school and an after-school program (some children attend school in the mornings, some in the afternoon), but it is much more than that. Crecer provides a fundamental safe space and supportive role for its young people. Love, mutual respect, and the education of basic human values are at the heart of Crecer's mission.

In a neighborhood where drug use and juvenile criminality is prevalent and where families have often been torn apart by unemployment or social crisis, Crecer is a breath of fresh air that brings hope for the future to this community's youngest members. Crecer con Amor is changing the lives of these kids each day and you can see it on their faces.

Not surprisingly, our volunteer program has been constantly inspired working with Jacqueline and everyone at Crecer. More than 40 volunteers from 14 different countries have volunteered in La Loma since 2006. Many notable things have happened. I will tell you about them as we go. Peace.