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Volunteering at Santa Adriana

One of the reasons that I picked the Santiago study abroad program was the Poverty and Development class that it offers.  The class meets once a week for three hours (sometimes a struggle after a morning of commuting and classes, but I try my best) and includes three hours weekly of volunteer work.  There were several sites to choose from, varying from a homeless shelter to shadowing a social worker to teaching classes to middle and high school kids.  I opted for the Centro Abierto de Santa Adriana, a community center that offers runs an after-school program for low-income children, among other things.  It’s located in a poorer neighborhood where many of the kids can only go to school for half the day because of limited resources, so the other half of the day they spend at the Centro under the supervision of the tías.

I go in the afternoons with two of my friends from Notre Dame.  We started about two weeks ago, and the first time getting there was a bit of an experience.  By bit of an experience, I mean we got lost on the micro (bus) for a solid two hours after a random detour sent us sailing past the correct turnoff and onto a tour of an area of Santiago that none of us had ever seen.  In retrospect it was necessary, since the neighborhoods our host families live in are upper-middle class and not representative of Santiago, let alone Chile, where income inequality, a rigid class structure and poverty are significant problems.  We had earnestly set out from the university around one in the afternoon expecting to be at Santa Adriana by two at the latest, but after waiting nearly an hour for what turned out to be the wrong micro, taking said micro to the end of its route, and then prevailing upon a benevolent bus driver to drop us at a micro that could take us back to the metro, we had given up on finding Santa Adriana.  We got on the next micro, resigned to trying again sometime later in the week, and not 10 minutes into the ride one of my friends glanced out the window and, lo and behold, there was Santa Adriana.  Victory!–albeit late, and unnecessarily confusing, but at least we finally made it.

The first day we stayed until the Centro closed at 5:30, getting to know the other tías and keeping the kids entertained.  The kids are absolutely wonderful, affectionate, welcoming and accommodating of our gringa Spanish.  When we arrive they come running up to greet us, then pull us in different directions to play futbol, read stories, or give piggyback rides as the case may be.  In addition to general supervision, we can lead talleres (workshops) for specific activities.  We can decide exactly what we want to do, but popular requests from the kids are sports (especially futbol), music, karaoke, dancing, art projects, and cooking.  Last week we lead a cooking taller in which we attempted to make brownies from scratch with 12 small children.  It was actually pretty successful:  the final product was pretty good, and only burned in one corner–not that this deterred the kids from devouring every last crumb.

I’ve been very impressed at how well-run the program is and how respectful the kids are.  I’ve volunteered at similar programs in the U.S that were really disorganized, with the kids running all over and no one knowing what’s going on.  The tías at Santa Adriana make sure people behave without being overly strict–a good environment for the kids, especially since I don’t know how much structure they really get the rest of the day.  Low-income areas in Chile struggle with many of the same problems as low-income areas in U.S, including drugs, alcoholism, domestic abuse, and early onset of sexual activity (some kids as young as 11 or 12).  I sometimes wonder how much help we gringas really provide, since there’s still something of a language barrier and we’re only there once a week.  But the kids seem to really appreciate the extra attention and activities.  I’m interested to learn more about the neighborhood and get to know the kids and tías better in the coming weeks.

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  1. Adnan / September 6, 2009

    Thanks for the interesting stories, Julia. I am really curious to hear more about your experiences with the rigid class structure in Chile. From what I can tell that is a core part of the Chilean society and it would be virtually impossible to change it and without changing that true development will be hard to come by in Chile. Given your experience in Chile so far, do you think that is an accurate viewpoint?

    Keep sharing the stories!

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