Volunteer Abroad - Chile, Volunteer Abroad Programs

An Unexpected Afternoon at Hogar Juan XXIII

by Janna Elwell, Greenheart Travel Volunteer in Chile

The second week of vacaciones passed just as quickly as the first. We spent the first few days of the week running around outside with the kids simply enjoying the free time they had been given. Later in the week Mauricio, our sponsor from the volunteer organization, asked us to come down to the office in Santiago and help out with an information session. A group of 12 new volunteers from England had just arrived to Chile, about to go through their orientation. Mauricio thought it may be helpful to have us talk about our experience in the hogar.

All of the new volunteers were doing a different program, in which they are placed with host families in the community and then go into a public school each day to teach in classrooms, but regardless, Maja Silvia and I offered all of the advice we could. We talked about the difficulties of working with kids, how to stay safe in the city, what was worth seeing and eating, and most of all the language. The entire group had come straight from England without a speck of Spanish knowledge, and thus the whole information session was conducted in English (this was practically the first time I had heard Maja and Silvia speak English, and for once I was the one they looked to when they weren’t certain of how to correctly say something!).

We answered question after question from the concerned volunteers–“Did you know any Spanish when you arrived? How can I learn to speak the quickest? How long did it take you to feel comfortable talking?”. Amidst all the Q&A I could not believe that I was actually the one providing answers; it seemed like it had just been me sitting in their spot in that exact office going through my orientation, ridden with endless questions and anxious excitement. What an illustration this was for me, proving that the capacity and rate at which we can learn and adapt truly is incredible.

That Friday Maja, Silvia and I had the afternoon off, so we took a little field trip of our own. At the Olympiada the week before, we had mused about how interesting it would be to see how the other hogars in the area were run. As we realized the possibility that existed within our curiosity, our musing developed into a plan of action. After a quick exchange of emails, the three of us had been granted an invitation to spend the afternoon at Juan XXIII, another local hogar. After making the hour-long journey out to Buin, another suburb of Santiago, we found ourselves in front of what looked like a closed up shop.

If it wasn’t for the barely noticeable plaque printed with the name of the hogar  posted outside the gates we most likely would have turned right back around. However, eager to see what lay beyond the crumbling outer wall, we rang the bell and everything after that was a tumbling series of events. A kind old woman let us in and motioned for us to follow her, mumbling something about finding the director. We walked across dirt paths weaving through squat buildings, noticing the curious eyes peeking out at us through windows and doorways. There was hesitance in the children, certainly confused as to why there were three white girls walking through their home. However, once we finally encountered the director, a woman named Jeanette, she offered a warm and inviting greeting, and the kids must have realized that we weren’t of any imminent danger. They all came rushing out of the shadows, each fighting for a spot to cling onto the three of us.

What sets Juan XXIII apart from the rest of the hogars, and also the reason why we chose to contact this hogar in particular, is that all of the children they take in have varying types and degrees of physical and mental disabilities. Anyone who has worked with this particular population knows of the incredible amounts of love and affection they have, and these kids were no exception. From the moment they ran out to greet us right up until the very last second we were there, the three of us each had at least four of the kids hanging on us at a time.

For the first little while we talked with Jeanette asking questions about their facility and it’s history, trying to get as much information as possible in between the shouts and cries for attention from the kids. They had 60 kids total, ranging from age 7 and up, the large majority of them boys. The children all were separated into homes and had 2 or 3 different Tios (unlike our staff of Tias, most of their staff was male) who rotated shifts each night and day. As Jeanette talked with us and showed us around the facility, I was struck by the contrast their hogar held to ours; aside from the most notable difference of theirs being a home for the disabled, Jeanette also told us of the extreme lack of funding, volunteers, and employees. The actual structure of their facility can only be described as lacking; the “homes” where the children lived are more appropriately termed bunkhouses, simply a barren roofed area with 4 bunks and a bathroom.  Since they didn’t have the same concept of nuclear families, they didn’t have family meal time either. Instead they all congregated in a cafeteria connected to the schoolhouse for each meal. Their play area consisted of a small field sprinkled with patches of grass, an old armchair, and a swing set that only had one unbroken swing.

She explained that although they had a smaller population than most hogars, each of their children required the same care and attention as two children without disability. Because the area they were in was much farther outside of the Santiago Metropolitan area they had limited staffing resources. She said receiving any local volunteers was a rare and special occasion; as for international volunteers, we were the first these children had ever seen. Their facility also differed from ours in function, as this hogar was both a home and school for the kids. They all had the same schedule, waking in the morning to walk to the crudely constructed schoolhouse a couple hundred yards across from their homes, only to make that same walk back at the end of the school day.

Jeanette explained that school was held within the facility for a couple of reasons, the foremost being education quality and safety. Despite the fact that Chile is among the most developed countries in South America, they still lack the education needed to effectively and efficiently work with the disabled population. The classroom resources and one-on-one teacher opportunities that exist in America are completely unheard of there. On the other hand, when the kids remain within the environment of the hogar with staff who personally know them and their temperaments, learning becomes a group-focused event, promoting achievement and development on a level that accustoms a learning curve that falls below what can be found in public schools. Although on-site education certainly increases education efficiency it also puts up permanent walls around the daily lives of these kids, who rarely get to leave and experience the outside world.

After our initial discussion Jeanette left us to play with the kids while she went to take care of some administrative business. These kids, ecstatic to finally have us to themselves, fired question after question at us. They continued to nudge their way into the tightly packed circle formed around us, fighting for their turn to hold our hands or hug our waists.Their energy was tangible and I was so humbled by their excitement to have us there. One of the young boys kept begging me to leave a recuerdo, or memoir, for him, not-so-subtly hinting that he wanted the ring I was wearing on my hand. This set off a chain reaction, and soon enough all the kids were insisting that they needed recuerdos as well.

I figured the only was to satisfy them all would be to leave a card of some sort, so I asked for paper and crayons and just like that they were all racing back to their houses to bring us the supplies. So there we were, Maja, Silvia, myself and about 15 kids all sprawled out across the rough pavement coloring pictures and writing notes for one another. We passed the rest of the afternoon running around outside, kicking a completely flat soccer ball to one another, swinging and playing charades. Maja, Silvia and I had been planning on staying only a couple of hours, but before we knew it the afternoon had come and gone and the sun was beginning to set. Jeanette invited us to stay for dinner, after which we began the rough goodbyes. The children begged us to stay and upon realizing that it was a battle they weren’t going to win they began demanding to know when we would return.

The three of us were very much aware of the lack of time we had (one week for me, at this point), and realized that realistically we probably wouldn’t be able to make it back. It dawned on us that these were the first of our goodbyes, and the fact that I felt like I was being torn from children I had just met that afternoon filled me with dread anticipating the goodbyes with the kids I had grown to know over the 2 months I was there.

After nearly 5 hours spent laughing and playing, we walked out looking over our shoulders at some of the most affectionate youth I have yet to meet. Our arms were filled with all sorts of drawings and trinkets gifted to us, but more than anything it was our hearts that were filled with the most overwhelming feeling of love and memories of a beautiful afternoon spent within the inviting arms of everyone at Hogar Juan XXIII.

Read more about Janna’s adventures…

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