|Volunteering in Argentina: Erin Shawgo|
|Written by Erin Shawgo|
This summer I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to the city of Buenos Aires in Argentina. Latin America has always been of interest of mine and as the summer before my senior year at Marquette University approached, I felt now was the opportune chance. After researching for almost a year I found a company called Rustic Volunteer and had a trip to Xela, Guatemala all worked out. Unfortunately, within days of my scheduled departure, a volcano erupted outside Guatemala City where I was to fly into and Tropical Storm Agatha had plagued the country with flooding and mudslides, blocking off a lot of transportation systems. I reluctantly called off my trip.
This is when my adventure to Argentina began.
I recalled hearing my friend Kate mention that she would be heading down to Buenos Aires for an undetermined amount of time and thought I would see if I could tag along. This was the beginning of June and she would be leaving on June 28th, so I had just about a month to organize this new endeavor. Kate had organized her trip through an organization called Help Argentina that worked with grassroots groups throughout the nation and was originally set up to recuperate after the economic crisis in the early 2000’s. They have a subset called Insight Argentina that allows volunteers to work at some of these organizations which range from community centers, health clinics, organic farms and so on. The organization was very accommodating with my last minute request to join Kate and spent time with me both on the phone and via email as I made all of my arrangements.
Volunteer fees to Help Argentina are very affordable at about $400USD, a portion of which will go to the organization you are working with. They are able to help arrange housing as well if you’d like, however, Kate and I used a housing recommendation of one of our professors and stayed at La Taba Hostel in the Villa Crespo barrio. Once we had both arrived in the country we met with our volunteer coordinator for a brief orientation to go over the Help Argentina organization as well as a visit to the volunteer site we would be working with for the next month. I had chosen to join Kate at the location she had been assigned instead of having one matched to my own skill evaluation. We would be working at Hogar San Nicolas, a home for about 23 girls, ages 13-21. We had been told that we would be exposing the girls to a different culture and possibly conducting a class or clinic of our own while we were there. Prior to our arrival we had been contacted by a former volunteer that had worked there thru placement with Insight Argentina. Her biggest recommendation had been to take time to get to know the girls and that the site could sometimes appear to be organized chaos. San Nicolas lived up to her word. The first challenge we were presented with was the difference in Castellaño compared to the Spanish both Kate and I had studied for many years. A lot of people will travel to Buenos Aires and adjust very quickly to the thick, Italian sounding accent and vosotros verb tense, but it was a bit overwhelming when it was being yelled with increasing speed across a room by a 15-year old girl.
The volunteer site proved to be a challenge. Kate and I spent much of our time at the home simply trying to gain the girls interest. We would have days where we may have a brief conversation about the popular TV shows in our respective countries with one or two girls and consider it a huge success. Other days we would be left in the front room without a task or a girl to talk to and leave somewhat defeated. This was a big deal for me. I think one of the reasons I wanted to volunteer while I traveled abroad was because I was looking for a life-changing experience. I didn’t just want to be another tourist, an observer from the outside. I wanted to truly experience a new culture to the point where I may have opinions challenged or new ideas formed. It took a lot of frustration and reflection for me to realize that even though my volunteer site seemed to be a failure in my mind, I could still learn a lot from the experience. It is very humbling to be a volunteer without an immediate impact because of your work. Being from the United States and a culture that demands immediate response, initially I was very upset that neither myself nor the girls I was trying to work with were realizing positive change on the spot.
My biggest piece of advice to those who travel and volunteer is to approach your volunteer site with an open mind. Obviously this can refer to the way you look at culture and new situations, but I mean it in the sense of your expectations as to what you or the recipients of your work will gain from this experience. While you shouldn’t have low expectations by any means, don’t be upset if you don’t change lives on your trip. You may spend much of your time abroad working hard and leave with little impact taking place at all. This is how I felt at the end of my trip. Then I realized that I still had a chance to make a difference in this situation. I made an effort to be honest in my evaluation to Help Argentina about what I felt could improve the volunteer’s experience. Because of my somewhat defeated experience I could provide constructive criticism that may better the organization overall. As for myself I felt that our volunteer site didn’t quite know what to do with us. While they were not unwelcoming by any means, they also would go about their work without making an effort to incorporate us in it while we were schedule to work with them. I also felt more could be done to ensure that volunteers were reflecting on their experience and relating it to the current social issues that afflict the country by providing reflection questions or setting up discussions. Though I may have not gained my highly anticipated epiphany while in Argentina, I may help others get a little closer to theirs through my honest feedback.
Don’t feel overwhelmed if your experience is not what you anticipate it being. Look at it in a new way, a silver lining I guess. There really can be a positive to every situation. I still loved my trip to Buenos Aires. It is an amazing city, full of absolutely wonderful people. And I was able to find fulfillment in knowing that I had made a difference, although the immediate impact may not have recognizable.