Wondering what it is like to volunteer and take language lessons in another country? Natalie tells us all about her experience in Bolivia and how she chose a place to volunteer.
I had a few goals set out before I left for South America, two of the most important being volunteering and taking Spanish lessons. If there is one place to do it, it’s in Sucre, Boliva. There are endless opportunities for both volunteering and language classes in Sucre. At just about every other block, you will see a sign for a different Spanish school. There is a ton of information online, but there was one place that caught my eye, and I’m glad that it did!
I came across Fenix Language School online. The school helps their students get set up with long or short-term volunteering projects, if interested. This is what initially sparked my interest in this particular school. At this point, I had been in Sucre for almost a week and knew it was a place I would be more than happy to stay for a little while longer. Sucre, Bolivia’s constitutional capital, is one the most beautiful and sophisticated cities that I came across in Bolivia. I could get lost exploring the markets, wandering the streets lined with beautiful, white, colonial buildings, and enjoying many of delicious restaurants and cafés around the city. With it’s spring-like temperatures, beautiful sights and much to do in and around Sucre, it quickly became obvious why some travelers spend much more time in this city than they had originally anticipated.
Once I discovered Fenix, I headed right over to the school to learn more about their available lessons and volunteer opportunities. I wanted to get started as soon as possible. The receptionist was really helpful in explaining the different lessons and volunteer options that they had to offer. Right away, I signed up for daily Spanish lessons, and I decided that volunteering at Los Ciruelitos (Little Plums), a guarderia (daycare) located in one of Sucre’s poorer suburbs, was the best option for me.
I started volunteering at the daycare in the mornings through the afternoon followed by daily Spanish lessons from 2-4 p.m. It felt nice to have a routine and a schedule. I never thought I’d say it, but after backpacking for months, there were some aspects of this that I truly missed. My Spanish professor was a sweet woman named Jimena. She was a wonderful teacher, and we would often chat after and before classes about my travels around South America. I really enjoyed spending time in her class and learning from her, and I would highly recommend Fenix Language School to anyone traveling to Sucre to learn Spanish and/or volunteer.
Los Ciruelitos daycare was a wonderful place to volunteer since they were super flexible and welcomed us with open arms. The children’s ages ranged from babies to six year old. My time was spent playing with the children, making sure they were entertained with various activities, assisting with meals and nap time routines, and some basic cleaning. The women who run this place do so much with so little. It felt truly special to know you are making their lives a bit easier. I knew this would be something that would tug at my heartstrings, but at first, I didn’t know how much the kids and the women who run the daycare would touch my life. The kids come from families that heavily rely on this center to make ends meet and even with so little, these children are some of the most beautiful, happy, energetic kids I have ever met.
After my first day volunteering, I was really inspired to help in anyway that I could. I knew I wanted to donate money to help out since they receive very little government funding for only part of the year (even though Guarderia Ciruelitos is open year round). Throughout the year, the center relies on generous donations that truly make a difference in these children’s lives. I wanted to do anything I could, so I set up a donation site with youcaring.com. I thought, well if I want to help, maybe some of my friends and family will feel inclined as well! So I set our fundraising goal to $200 and went to bed.
I woke up in complete excitement when I saw that we had already reached our goal. I was beyond ecstatic. Day after day, we received donation after donation from those who have supported our journey from day one. I was so humbled and touched by these acts of kindness that I had a skip in my step like never before. At the end of it all, we had raised over, $1,000! I was shocked and so excited to give this gift to Andrea, the daycare’s organizer, on our last day of volunteering.
It was a challenge in itself to find a bank to let us pull out this amount in Bolivianos, but at least 4 to 5 ATMs later, we had the total amount of donations ready to go. I could nott wait to give Andrea this surprise. About halfway through the day we pulled her aside and explained that we had shared their story and asked for donations from our friends and family back in the United States. Her jaw dropped, and when I handed her that stack of cash all she could do was hug us and tell us how grateful she was. I, of course, at this point could not hold back the tears.
The rest of that day was filled with happiness. Andrea brought out the stereo so the kids could dance outside and it was a feeling of joy that I will never forget. It was extremely hard for me to say goodbye and although I was incredibly happy, I had a pit in my stomach knowing that I had to say goodbye. I felt sadness in my heart to be leaving but also extremely thankful and lucky that I had the chance to be apart of their lives, even for only a short amount of time.
Bolivia was the first time I had ever seen poverty to that extent. It has changed the way I view the world and has made me feel very blessed for the opportunities that I have had throughout my life. It’s also shown me what’s important, and I will forever view things differently after this. Most people I came across in Bolivia were some of the warmest people I’ve ever met while traveling. My words can barely describe how thankful I am to have had this experience and been able to meet these beautiful children and people who became part of my life in a way I had never experienced before. A word of advice to those backpacking: say yes to volunteer opportunities. It’s a truly unique experience that you’ll never forget!
Natalie Cairo started her blog, Peace, Love & a Backpack, before leaving her 9-5 PR job for a six month adventure in South America. Natalie is now back in the Bay Area, working on new PR projects and continuing to write about her travels. Connect with Natalie on Instagram and Twitter!