Guest Blog Written by Heather Donkers, Queen’s University (Outreach Trip to Bolivia)
A trip like this was something that I had wanted to participate in since a time way before I was even legally allowed to travel on my own.
I wish that I had some sort of story to tell about what inspired me to travel to a foreign country and help to build a school, but it was simply something that I had dreamed about since I was young. Maybe it was the thought that other kids couldn’t go to elementary school like I was doing, maybe it was just the thrill of travelling somewhere new that made me want to do it; I don’t know. What I do know is that my patience and the long 8 years of waiting that I did before I could finally leave to build this school was well beyond worth it, and that I came back with a certain inspiration that I didn’t have before.
I left with SOS to a small village called Camancho Rancho in Bolivia this summer. We spent quite a bit of time getting used to the change in culture; the food, climate, and customs were all very different than what we were accustomed to, of course. Walking down the streets even took a bit of getting used to, due to unruly traffic and a lot of people staring at the strange-looking North American girls. Culture shock didn’t get the best of us, though, and soon we were comfortable in the village where the work-site was stationed. There we helped to build a structure that would, soon enough, be the place where about 100 young children would learn and grow. Neither dusty skies or what we would consider uncomfortable living conditions could stop us from doing what we had come to do.
In my life, I have always known that education is what I value most. I always want to be learning and I have been fortunate enough to do so through the Canadian school system and using the resources that are readily available to me. It is through this education that I have become aware of the fact that this is not the case in a lot of other places in the world. So, either when carrying tiles that weighed more than my whole body or shovelling wheelbarrows upon wheelbarrows of dirt, I kept in mind that thought – the fact that the small part that I had in this process was in fact something much bigger, and that this big thing would provide an otherwise illiterate child with the means to receive an education. It was that exact thought that kept me going through the blood, the sweat and the tears, the pain and the occassional temptation to give up. Knowing what would come of the physical labour and the time that we took to be there made every moment worth it, and the smiles on the children’s faces made it very well-known to us that our efforts were not wasted.
My favourite part of my trip to Bolivia actually occurred on the last day, regardless of the fact that our leaving was bittersweet. The last day was inauguration day; in other words, the school had finally been finished and we were a part of the presentation ceremony to the community. When the elderly women of Camancho Rancho adorned us with flowers and sprinkled our heads with confetti, kissed us on the cheeks and thanked us in their language; when the children who would benefit from the school hugged us and braided our hair and taught us how to dance; and finally, when looking at the structure that we had had a small part in erecting; it occured to me that I was unsure whether or not I would ever be happier than I was in that moment. I had always thought that this was the kind of thing that I had wanted to do for the rest of my life, but it was then that I knew for sure.
My greatest inspiration to do more came in the form of a 17 year-old boy. His name was Rodrigo, and without fail, he could be found every day at the work site doing some sort of job to push the school successfully towards its completion date. He always made conversation with our group despite our language barrier, and his shy smile was one that I will never forget. On that last day, when the school was being opened, Rodrigo was nominated to reveal the plaque that stated the names of those who had contributed to the building. It was then that I found out that Rodrigo is an orphan, living completely on his own and with little money, and that even though he wouldn’t be attending the school that had just been opened to the public, he had showed up to work every day on his own will.
Often Rodrigo and I would talk to each other with our hands, as I only spoke a little bit of Spanish and he knew no English at all. When the rest of the group and I departed for the Cochabamba airport, Rodrigo took a taxi there without our knowledge, and was at the doors when we showed up. After saying our final goodbyes, we started to go through customs, but I looked over once more to the boy and it was then that he signalled the most important sentence that he had in the two weeks. With his hands, and with broken English that he picked up from me, he managed to convey that he would, one day, make it to Canada. I can only hope that that dream of his comes true.
On the plane home, it occured to me that we need to do more things like this for people like the little girl who braided my hair, who was just so appreciative of the little thing that we had done. We need to continue building schools for people like Rodrigo, who takes time out of his day to work on a project that will not directly benefit him, and who cares deeply for people that he knows he may never see again. We need to continue doing these things even for people like the elderly women of a community, who see a structure as hope for their children and for other children to come.
A blog post will never be able to express what the village taught me, but I can offer this: Find something that you care about, and realize that people halfway around the world care about it too. Find friends, find family, find strangers who want to do what you want to do, and do it. Don’t wait longer than you can afford to wait, because at the end of any given day, you want to be able to say that you did something to change the world. And trust me, you will.