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Volunteer in Mexico
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Volunteer in Mexico

Children’s Shelter of Hope, Puerto Vallarta

In December 2006 I began volunteering for the nonprofit children’s shelter known as Refugio Infantil Santa Esperanza (R.I.S.E.), Children’s Shelter of Hope (www.refugioinfantil.com), located in beautiful Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. It felt great, my first true humanitarian effort, and I immediately envisioned my time abroad from a different perspective.

I returned to the shelter sporadically throughout the next few weeks, slowly advancing my Spanish-language proficiency by initiating small talk over dirty dishes and wrinkled laundry. Once I had names down and had proven myself as a trustworthy volunteer—meaning willing to pitch in on the chores so as to relieve the older kids of washing and drying an endless pile of dirty dishes on their own—I realized that I wasn’t making all of the cultural advances anymore. Instead of asking questions, like “What is it about jalapenos?,” I was answering questions, like “How big is Mickey Mouse in person?” Within weeks I was visiting the house on a more regular basis, greeted every time without fail by a flurry of hugs and immediately joining in on the events of the afternoon.

The shelter houses an average of 45 children who are in need of housing and care. These children range in age from infants to young adults; currently the youngest is seven months and the oldest 13 years. Care is provided for any amount of time that their families are not able to provide for them. There are several children whose primary guardians are either in jail, deceased, or involved in prostitution. These children will likely live in the shelter until young adulthood, at which point they are able to leave in search of employment and other housing. Catholic nuns (madres) live on the grounds, as well as several paid staff members who work with the different age groups. Volunteers from all over the world help tie the loose ends, performing miscellaneous chores such as bathing, feeding, changing diapers, cleaning the facility, etc.

Like most nonprofit organizations, aggregate income comes directly from donated funding. The fourth annual R.I.S.E. fundraiser was held on February 18, 2007. Overall we raised $32,000, enough to sustain the shelter for more than six months.

Everyone involved in this cause is privileged with an awareness of a life lived differently. I’ve learned a lot about how to work with underprivileged families and how to motivate myself as well as others to respond to such a lack of opportunity. The children are educated, healthy, and happy. There is no doubt that they leave the shelter with more than what they have coming into it.

When choosing to move abroad, I made a point to have as few expectations as possible. My only goal was to become a part of the community and make myself known to the people of Puerto Vallarta as someone interested in their culture. With many successes and failures at this attempt throughout my visit, volunteering at R.I.S.E. was by far my greatest accomplishment.

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