The first time I volunteered abroad, I was just shy of my 41st birthday. I was feeling stuck in my advertising career, nursing a mediocre long-distance relationship, and tired of living in cost-prohibitive San Francisco.
I’d recently completed a yoga teacher training after 20+ years of practice to kick start the next chapter of my life, and thought I’d top it off with some voluntourism. I’d volunteered before – everything from fundraising events at my son’s school to building with habitat for humanity, but never outside of California. I chose a three week program in Brazil that immersed volunteers culturally while using their skill sets to contribute to local schools. I’d learn a bit of Portugeuse and capoeira while teaching yoga to children. What could be more fun, right?
After arriving in Salvador and meeting my fellow volunteers, a few of us walked down to the Itapua lighthouse. We passed by a group of young teenage girls, maybe 13 or 14 years old, and one of them was pregnant. Six months? Or maybe nine, I couldn’t tell on her slender young body how far along she was, only that her linea negra was showing, along with a slightly protruding belly button. I was told by our organizer that this sight would become more familiar, but no less disturbing. When we returned to the apartment, we learned our first Portuguese word – ‘barata’ – for cockroach, because they were ubiquitous. Fortunately, I was wasted tired from 36 hours of travel, so fell asleep quickly, accepting I’d be ingesting a few baratas during my stay.
The next day was a quick orientation and then off to explore before work on Monday. The volunteers decided to visit a couple of islands – Ilha do Frada and Ilha de Itaparica – off the tip of Salvador. To get to the second island, we had to get off the big ferry boat and take a mini-motor boat to the dock. After lunch and a swim, we headed back to the boat to discover a sudden storm coming in. And by sudden, I mean one second the sky is blue and clear and the next it is dark gray and windy. We spent the next hour stuck in the bay, being soaked by cold, sideways rain. Even though we couldn’t see five feet in front of us, the boat started heading back to Salvador, an hour and a half ride away. We were instructed to put on lifejackets, one of the crew began handing them out, and the mood went from slightly frenzied cheerfulness to quiet worry. I remember thinking – I don’t know any of you – either the volunteers or the locals. And who knew how people would respond in a crisis? But then the samba band came out and started to play again, in the rain. Everyone started dancing and singing. If we were going down, it was going to be with music playing and caipirinha in hand – like on the Titanic. And as quickly as it rolled in… the storm passed, the clouds broke, the sun set, and we had smooth sailing back to the harbor. My fellow volunteers and I bonded in an afternoon, something we couldn’t have predicted but that served us well over the coming weeks.
At our placement, Fruito de Mais, a pre-school in the Algados district, a typical day went like this: We would arrive around 8:30am, in time to help the children brush their teeth and clean up after breakfast. Then the teacher gave a lesson – for example, one week they studied the environment and how important it is to treat it with respect. There were also practical lessons, like ‘What is the difference between a number and a letter?’ In many ways they were right on par with other six year olds, like learning how to brush their teeth properly, but this one seemed off – 99% of them could not tell you if A was a number or 4 was a letter. They were completely affectionate and funny and loud and silly and fearless. They hugged me and kissed me and wanted to play with my hair. They told me entire stories in Portuguese, even though I repeatedly told them that I didn’t understand. They couldn’t stand next to me without holding my hand or hugging my leg. And I loved being with them.
The main teacher had a great sense of humor but was strict and the kids respected her. After lots of singing, that somehow always ended up with us on the floor or dancing around like a chicken, they would take off their shoes and shirts, and get in line for recess. The recess area was a concrete block about 120 degrees to walk on, but they were used to it, even in their bare feet. The rest of the area was rocky and weedy, but covered in shade by a big tree. After play, they got back in a line, and headed for the showers. I was often on drying-off patrol.
One thing I learned at Frutos was the difference between coco and coco. Coco is coconut in Portuguese. It is also poop. Or shit, as I like to call it. I had to learn this when shower time came and one pair of underpants was hosting a fresh deposit, and then one of the kids came OUT of the shower with poop running down his leg. Theoretically, they all had their own towels, but no one ever remembered whose was whose. I figured out eventually that they didn’t get washed during the week at school but went home in their backpacks on Friday. I had to hope they would get washed there. Especially since there was poop on two of them. Many of the kids also had scabies, so the fact that they are showering daily is a plus. Then after showers, back in the classroom, everyone received a cup of filtered water. There were six cups for 22 kids, so they had to take turns.
I had so many questions about cleanliness but I didn’t want to offend in my asking. There didn’t seem to be soap anywhere except they added some to the bucket of water for showers. They didn’t use it to wash their hands, though, and there was none in the bathrooms. This school was one of the better ones. A fairly new building, chairs and tables, kids were fed twice a day, took showers and brushed their teeth and still – I wanted more for them. I wanted them to have their own pencils, their own water cups, their own towels, and so on.
There were plenty of things about the school that were great, and an equal number of things I wish I could have *fixed*. However, as I continued to learn, giving donations isn’t sustainable to the children or the schools. If I wanted to buy colored pencils, great, but who will buy them when they have run out? If I wanted to give money for a project, great, but who will give money for the next project – and what happens to the kids who develop an expectation of these projects and services? I became frustrated by this and yet I completely understood.
I was happy for the kids that they had a teacher who truly cared and provided structure for them. The discipline would never fly in the states, though – there was a lot of yelling, grabbing arms and putting bodies in chairs by the teacher. There were also a few kids with obvious behavioral issues, but it was difficult to address any of that. It wasn’t my place. Who was I to come in and tell them how to run their school?
One day, we arrived at school to find that half of the students were missing – out of 22 students, only seven were there. When I asked what was going on, I was informed that 1. It was Monday. Everyone knows that Monday is the day after the weekend, and some Mammies were drinking too much, so they needed to recuperate. And 2. It had rained the night before, and for the many who walk their kids to school, they chose to keep them at home, rather than bear the rain. It was disheartening, because it didn’t seem like the parents felt as strongly about the kid’s consistent education as the teachers and school did. Or maybe it was just me being judgemental.
There was an incentive program in Brazil at the time. If you sent your child to public school, and didn’t miss any days (unless sick,) the family was paid 180R (equivalent of $108) per month. If they missed even one day, they weren’t paid that month. The challenge, though, was for the teachers keeping track of the student’s attendance. If they saw that a child had missed classes, and knew that it meant the child would not eat or be clothed, they felt so badly that they gave the school the wrong information. It helped the child, in that moment, but not the system for the long term. The children I worked with were in a community pre-school. In theory, they could have all gone to public school the following year, if their parents applied. But many of them simply don’t, and they end up on the street, begging and doing odd jobs – their education ending in that instant.
I began to feel guilty about leaving them. How many people, volunteers, came in and out of their lives at the school? What did they remember? Why was I attached to them remembering me? And how could I continue to help after I go back to the states? It had me thinking deeply about international development, education, infrastructure… and our own dysfunctional system in the states.
On one of our last days together, there were torrential downpours and when we got to the Frutos, no one was there. No children, no teachers. So we headed over to the Mother Teresa orphanage, where two other volunteers had been spending their days. When I got to Frutos, I was pleased that there was so much structure, and passion for teaching. I had told myself early on that I wanted to work with older kids because being with babies in an orphanage might make me unbearably depressed.
I was 100% right. At Mother Theresa, there were up to 25 children between the ages of one and three years old. There were about eight of them who spent their nights there, Monday-Friday, as their parents could not care for them. Other children were there based on need. The Sisters went out into the community on home visits and determined which other children should stay there. There were also about six elderly women there, most of whom were disabled either physically or mentally. Going there that morning… I kept telling myself it was a happy accident that it rained, that I was getting another wonderful experience… but by the time I got into the van with my fellow volunteers, I couldn’t stop the tears. There was a sadness in the eyes of those children that can’t be explained and should not exist in the first place. There were these two little girls – sisters, both named Jasmine. The older one was expressionless except for this sadness. She cared for her little sister, holding her by the hand and leading her to the bathroom, holding her hand while she napped, always watching over her. At Frutos, the children were bright and happy and wanted to be near us because it was fun and they were full of life. At Mother Theresa, they simply wanted to be held. We were told that most of them do not have fathers, so when one of our volunteers, Ronny, walked in, they ran to him, one after the other, hugging his legs. They were so smart, and rascally, and full of love. It was too much heartbreak, though, that they had parents who couldn’t provide for them. Some of them had jobs here and there, but nothing consistent. And although the nuns did their best to keep the place clean and organized, none of this would pass the standards where I lived. But we weren’t in the states, and I would come to realize that this comparison was pointless.
And so, after three weeks of both heart filling and heart breaking time spent, I returned to the states wondering why I felt compelled to go in the first place. I kept in touch with my fellow volunteers – one of them becoming a good friend (Ciao, Jane!) And a few years later, we all had a Facebook exchange about the benefits and detriments we do as international volunteers. As far as programs go, ours was expensive because it was billed as cross-cultural and did indeed offer many other aspects beyond volunteering. But did we help those children? Were these roles that someone locally could have filled? Were we simply contributing financially to keep the school afloat and be seen as visitors lending a hand? Back then, I thought I could help. I thought I could contribute somehow – not in a way that no one else could, but in the way that only I could. Still, full of ego. Unfortunately, it would take another big international volunteer gig in India for me to see the light.
Writer Traveler Human Being