I did ICS because I wanted to see what development looked like on the ground and I wanted do something worthwhile, give back and make a difference. But joining the Tearfund ICS programme in Bolivia has blown my expectations out of the water. I got here in July (2014) and expected to lead a team to help in a school and nursery, you know, the usual volunteering abroad type of story. And as cheesy and “gap year” as it sounds I feel like I have gotten back 10 times what I have given.
I’d never been to South America before, so had no idea what the place, people and culture would be like. Bolivia wasn’t even on my radar, but having been here about 5 months, Cochabamba feels like home.
The project I’m working on has been fun, crazy and exhausting all at the same time. The organisation is called Oeser. They run a school and a nursery that is funded by a social enterprise called Mikuniy. This business produces quinoa cereal bars that are sold and then the profits go towards running the schooland the nursery – pretty genius idea!
I work in all three parts of the organisation and my week usually looks a little like this.
Tuesday we have a good run around and help with the P.E. classes, sell some bars outside schools and plan the rest of the week.
Wednesday we put on a youth club for the kids in the school, getting them involved in extra curricular activities. At our most recent youth club we set up a photo booth to teach the youth about honesty. They made their own masks and had a whale of a time getting their photo taken.
Friday we work in the nursery and help with English class. We also run a VIP break time, where we give every teacher VIP tickets to give to the children in their classes who have behaved well. With their ticket they get entry into the games room and get to play table football, table tennis, board games and make loom-band bracelets. We love it and the kids love it.
In between all this we sell more bars, do some marketing, sell more bars and then help the teachers with whatever they need. Our weeks are jammed packed and I love it that way.
Education makes the difference
Working at Oeser, I never imagined we’d be able to achieve and learn so much. The teachers have really left an impression on me. They work incredibly hard and are really creative and and innovative in finding ways to help their students learn. As obvious as it sounds, teachers make make the world of difference when it comes to learning and personal development.
Just helping in the nursery school has made me realise that too often in the UK I have taken my education for granted. Not anymore! In the UK we get free education and have access to so many resources for our education, regardless of our socio-economic background. I didn’t think much about it beause, as far as I could tell, everyone had the same opportunities. Now I have started to see that we were the exception. A brainwave for me, for sure, alongside a newfound appreciation for education.
My ICS team-mates, and the people I’ve met, have absolutely made all the difference. With Tearfund ICS Bolivia we live in local host homes, working on a development project alongside Bolivian volunteers. It sounds like a well rounded experience, but now my host family are like my family. We laugh together, and when I have been stressed with the project work, my host mum has given me advice (and sometimes just made me a cup of tea). The Bolivian volunteers have also become like my brothers and sisters because we see each other at our best and our worst. There have been some cultural and language hiccups, like knowing the difference between papas (potatoes) and Papàs (parents), but we laugh about them now and learn from each other.
Also, my teams have been incredible! We work together, organise, disagree and have fun together. Even when we fall out, we work through it and stay focused on why we came. When I try and think about all I have learnt from my team, my head explodes! It doesn’t seem possible to take so much from one experience. One of the biggest lessons I have learnt is the difference a good attitude makes when working in a team, in a different context and in a different language. As is to be expected, there were ups and downs, but having a good attitude meant you could get on with anyone and it made the most boring activities fun and the most tiring days worthwhile.
Bringing it home
I wanted to make a difference in Bolivia and I feel like I have, but I also feel like this experience has changed me. When I get back to the UK I will have so much to reflect on because what I have learned so far is just the tip of the iceburg. As crazily overly optimistic as it sounds, inspired doesn’t begin to describe how I feel. I want to remember this feeling so it isn’t just a fleeting high. I want the time I’ve spent in Bolivia to inform how I choose my lifestyle and my career. I only have 4 weeks left so I am going to make the most of it and focus on seeing my team succeed and the project grow.