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Volunteer in Chile
Living in Chile

Volunteer in Chile with Voluntarios de la Esperanza

Big Brothers and Big Sisters for Chilean Youth

After pulling out a sliver of glass that made it past one of the girl’s flip-flops into her foot, we hurried back to our soccer game, but my team lost 10-2 and we had to pay the consequences: 10 seconds under a hose gently held over our heads one at a time as cold water trickled down our bodies, slowly soaking us from top to bottom. Everyone eventually joined in and a big water fight broke out. Another game, another day, another month, year and birthday go by in the hogar (home). It has been an important lesson to keep in mind that we volunteers are not here to change the world, but to give carino y seguridad (affection and security) to the kids we came to Chile to know.

For the past three months, I have been in Santiago, working with the non-profit organization Voluntarios de la Esperanza (VE), which places international volunteers in a network of 14 institutions including orphanages, temporary homes, community centers, and special education schools. Volunteers work as a set of spare hands for the overworked, understaffed hogares but are encouraged to share their personal talents by implementing workshops that foster growth, cultural exchange, or something as simple as just helping a child make sense of her math homework.

Depending on the structure and needs of the institution, volunteers play the roles of friend, playmate, educator, confidant, coordinator, organizer, big brother and big sister, but most of all as comforter. My connection with VE allowed me access to jump into a documentary photography project focusing on a group of girls while raising awareness about the hogar and the outreach the organization does.

Mealtime is the most structured part of the day. The girls are full bodied and well fed. They snack on avocado, tomato, and onion sandwiches from vegetables grown from a garden in the back yard and wash it down with homemade juice from duraznos (peaches) soaked in sugar water. Sometimes I wonder how a 5-year-old can eat such generous portions, but the kids clean their plates entirely, even making sure to slurp up the juice from a salad. I love to watch their round bellies running around, running under my arm to give me love, teaching me how easy it is to give it right back in return.

Even on the days the girls transform from little angels to little devils the work is rewarding. When their rage comes on I feel like I am in a boxing ring, separating arch enemies, fists flailing, each one taking a turn, provoking the other in a daily dance of self-defense. They change like chameleons as they swap affection for hostility. The staff reminds me that the kids’ behaviors are a result of their pasts. Making sense of how things are run in this family is still awkward for me, a structured individual accustomed to a clear system of rules and conduct. The staff works hard to maintain the fort. Loving the girls, teaching them right from wrong, reprimanding, rewarding, playing, picking the lice out of their hair, showing them how to care for others and groom themselves—these are extras. This is the human touch that the most talented and caring tías give.

Another Christmas just passed, the school year starts soon, and I wonder what these girls will choose to do with their lives. Such strong personalities. Free spirits. Well fed, yet still so hungry for much more. Mistreated. Vulnerable in their own rights, say the social assistants. When will their families come back to get them?

I love the path I chose for all its unknowns and how it fulfills more than my imagination daydreams. With my camera as my sidekick, Santiago is taking us on an incredible journey. Meeting people, conversing, observing, and capturing them. The kids, staff, volunteers, Chileans, strangers on the street. Sometimes I ask to take their pictures, other times there is an unspoken understanding giving me permission or telling me to back off. It starts as a selfish desire to take photographs of the things that capture my attention; my subject and I ultimately working together to make and share a picture. It’s a special way to travel. It’s giving it back to the subject. It’s commemorating a person. It’s the satisfaction in creating a visual diary of humanity and, right now, of a unique group of girls who have accepted me affectionately into their world.

To contact VE, visit their website or email them at info@ve-global.org.