“Tengo dos, y puedes tener uno. Es un regalo!” Sofia, a five-year old girl from rural Chicoana smiled sweetly as she offered me one of the two plain hair ties she owns. I scrambled for the right words to say in my limited Spanish, so that I could delicately decline her entirely too generous gift. Her face fell slightly when I told her I could not accept, but she quickly perked up when I gave her a hug and promised her una sopresa for the last day of class. Though our goodbyes were still days away, my eyes teared up as I realized how lovingly and openly the children I had worked with for only a few weeks had embraced me. Unexpectedly, my short vacation proved to be a deeply emotional and life changing experience.
I recently returned from a month-long graduation trip to Argentina, half of which was spent volunteering with the Foundation For Sustainable Development in Salta, a Northern province that lies along the Bolivian border. Though Argentina is often associated with glamour, fashion and the unbeatable nightlife of Buenos Aires (all of which I had the pleasure to enjoy), travelling within the province of Salta opened my eyes to an Argentina that most never see. While I and other volunteers lived with our host families in Salta Capital, a metropolitan region that holds many big-city attractions, we travelled a daily 30 miles to the rural, tobacco-growing town of Chicoana, where life is slower and siestas are taken seriously. Chicoana is host to Porvenir, a yearly summer camp run by Consciencia, an Argentinean NGO dedicated to the promotion of human rights through education.
December through March is the Argentinean summer, when school is not in session. For many children, summer is not a time of play, but of backbreaking labor and abuse within the tobacco fields. While Consciencia performs services such as employment workshops and counseling for parents, our role as volunteers was simple—we were there to love, inspire and be examples. The children who attend Porvenir range from ages 5 to 15 and are selected after multiple interviews. They generally have over 10 siblings and parents who work in the agricultural fields. All are poor, most are deprived of the parental attention they crave and many do not get three full meals a day. Accordingly, we were not at Porvenir to educate the children in math or reading, but to instill in them a sense of self-esteem, self-worth, creativity and hope for their future. Between 12 volunteers and 6 teachers we did our best to lavish the children with loving adult guidance.
Daily lessons revolved around a theme—“Identity” one day and “Culture” the next. My favorite theme was “The Rights of Children” which include the right to make mistakes, the right to be heard and the right to play. Indeed, many of the children, even the five and six year olds I worked with, have lives that revolve around their parents’ work. They did not understand how to simply be children. Thus, I found great joy in grabbing a child to jump, spin and dance with me for a few seconds between lessons or teaching the group simple, organized games like Duck, Duck Goose, or as we called it, Pato, Pato Ganso.
On the last day of work, I bought gifts for all my children—candy for everyone, Hot Wheels cards for the boys and, inspired by Sofia, jeweled hairpins for the girls. While I am sure that these young children will eventually forget me, I hope that Porvenir made a lasting impact on their families and futures so that they may break the cycle of poverty that begins with child labor.
I truly cannot imagine any of these sweet, talented, smart and humorous children with anything less than the best opportunities life can offer.