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Volunteer in Brazil
Living in Brazil

Volunteer Teaching in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has one of the most dramatic divisions of wealth in the world. Fashionable upper-class Brazilians sit at kiosks sipping caipirinha, the national drink, along breathtaking stretches of white sand beaches. At night they are entertained by an arts, theater, and restaurant scene that rivals the sophistication of New York City. Yet this spectacular natural beauty and lively, fun-loving culture is flanked by hillside slums (favelas) with some of the worst poverty in Latin America. The favelas rise up on steep hillsides throughout the city as a constant reminder of the oppressive underdevelopment, poverty, and violence facing more than two-thirds of the Brazilian population.

The injustice of this situation prompted one local woman to take action by starting a soup kitchen for the impoverished communities near her wealthy neighborhood of Copacabana. What started as a soup kitchen grew into Solar Meninos de Luz, a private school serving poor children and their families from infancy through high school and beyond.

I initially traveled to Brazil in 2005 to teach English. It didn’t take me long to fall in love with Rio de Janeiro—the kindness and friendliness of the people, the happy-go-lucky beach culture, and the obsession with the national dance, samba. But the poverty of the favelas was visible every time I turned the corner, and I felt strongly that I needed to do something, however small, to improve the lives of those who were suffering.

Despite being an American in Rio, with only basic Portuguese skills, I soon found that I could make a difference—by using my native language to create new opportunities for the children at Solar.

English proficiency is one of the most critical skills young Brazilians can acquire to ensure future success in college and in the work force. Aware of the vital importance of English, but unable to afford a paid staff of qualified instructors, Solar partnered with Bridge Volunteers, a U.S.-based group dedicated to sending volunteers to work at nonprofits abroad. The two organizations have worked to create what is now a thriving community English program, pairing youth from one of Rio’s neediest favelas with native English speakers from around the world. To ensure a high quality program, volunteers are provided with TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) training prior to their trip abroad. Bridge Volunteers placed me in one of its first English teaching positions at Solar and also gave me the much-needed Portuguese instruction necessary to succeed both as a teacher and as a foreigner in Rio.

My experience living with Cariocas was invaluable because it allowed me to not only see Brazil as a traveler but also to live as a Brazilian does. By the time I left, I had gained a new family as well as a new outlook on life. The people I met in Brazil—both my host family and the faculty and students at Solar—left a deep impression on me. They changed the way I think about my own culture, and their optimistic determination inspired me to continue to work at home toward social justice.

Upon my return to the States, I was determined not to lose sight of this experience, so I took a job as a volunteer coordinator with Bridge Volunteers in order to help others find meaningful volunteer experiences abroad.

I have found that connecting motivated volunteers with challenging and rewarding programs overseas encourages invaluable cultural exchange, helps struggling nonprofits abroad, and often, as in my case, can redirect a person’s career path and life. I was recently accepted into the Boettcher Teacher Program at the Univ. of Denver to study bilingual elementary education. When I begin to teach, I will work in urban school districts with children of immigrants to help them learn English and succeed in school. There is no doubt in my mind that my experience with the Brazilian struggle to break the cycle of poverty will continue to inform my work here in the U.S.