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Voluntario Global: Bringing Cultures Together Through Voluntourism
By Lisa Andersen and Robert Wake-Walker
Voluntario Global is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the development of local grassroots community projects in Latin America. It has 17 projects currently running in Buenos Aires as well as Jujuy, Bariloche, Misiones, and Villagrande in Bolivia. This article covers ideas, challenges and opportunities related to Voluntario Global's work, based on conversations with three partners and supporters of this important cause - Sylvia, representing a local school that works with Voluntario Global's educational programs, Valeria, Voluntario Global co-founder, and Kara, a current volunteer working in health programs.
Sylvia Ruarte, By Your Side, Voluntario Global Partner
In Pablo Nogués, about an hour train ride from Buenos Aires, Silvia Ruarte runs By Your Side, a small after-hours English school. She bases her work on the idea of quality education for everyone. That means that the school has very few resources at its disposal, as Silvia makes a point of charging the lowest possible tuition fee. It is not easy to run a school at such low cost, but Silvia seems to have what it takes: lots of energy, insight and compassion. And this seems to be where her motivation stems from.
"This is where I can make a difference"
Silvia grew up with the privilege of quality education, and when she realized that not everyone has this privileged background, she knew she had to change that. Even if the change looks small on a national scale, in the lives of the families, the opportunity is life changing. Silvia employs volunteers from all over the world (recruited through Voluntario Global).
This adds to the children’s understanding of geography – it becomes relevant and thus interesting to them to know something about other countries and regions of the world. It helps them realize the differences in the world, and sometimes the meaning of these differences. To Silvia, the most significant help for the school is the volunteers. Without them, the budget would not be sustainable, and the children would miss out on a lot of interesting and important lessons.
"Volunteers gain new insights, thoughts and ideas."
Further, Silvia recognizes and highly appreciates the lessons the volunteers learn, what they gain and what they take home with them: new insights, thoughts and ideas. This aspect of cultural exchange is as important as the main objectives of the volunteer program, which is to help the children in her school. To Silvia, what keeps responsible tourism many projects going is the prospect of giving and receiving on equal terms.
>> Learn more about Voluntario Global's volunteer project at By Your Side "Teaching English to Children and Teenagers" or contact Silvia at silviaruarte30[at]yahoo.com.ar / +54 (0)2320 414630.
Valeria Gracia, Co-Founder, Voluntario Global
Argentina is an interesting destination for volunteer travelers, as with many places around the world. Voluntary work is a fantastic way to get to know the community. Each and every country has its own culture, which makes each volunteering experience unique. For example, a volunteer worker in Bolivia would be exposed to the history of the indigenous culture. In Buenos Aires, a volunteer gets to connect with highly topical subjects and current affairs such as poverty in modern society and education and health issues. About seven years ago, Valeria founded Voluntario Global, with the goals of helping improve the lives of local people.
In addition to immersing yourself in the local culture, Valeria says, "a volunteer must strive to create a better society to live in." While the volunteer tourism sector continues to grow in Argentina, Valeria has seen more growth in Buenos Aires ("everyone arriving in Argentina has to come through BA") than in the rest of Argentina, where the needs may be greater.
"Tourists are seeking volunteer opportunities as part of their responsible tourism experiences"
So who are these volunteers - voluntourists - who visit and work in Argentina with Voluntario Global? Valeria says that these are not professional workers (e.g. medical professionals assigned to work on certain areas), but these are tourists who want to explore different cultures, and are seeking volunteer opportunities as part of their responsible tourism experiences. One of the primary reasons for these volunteer travelers to participate in the Voluntario Global program is to learn another language, to learn it by speaking it and by immersing yourself in the local culture and way of life. Just as Silvia, Valeria believes in the learning process of volunteering, and places great importance on interaction with the local communities.
Kara Howard, Long-Term Volunteer, Voluntario Global
As a long-term volunteer at Voluntario Global, Kara is working at Centro de Atención Primaria (Basic Health Care Center), and is involved in various areas of the organization: shadowing a pediatrician working with children with respiratory illnesses; learning about what treatments they have and how she helps them; learning about the government programs that have been set up to assist patients (e.g. free medication); shadowing a healthcare worker; helping with a Pap awareness campaign in the neighborhood; participating in a local health fair and other events. "There are so many areas that I can involve myself in," says Kara, "and that makes it a rewarding experience."
Asked about prevalent health issues in the area, Kara says, "In the area there is a lot of pollution. There is a lot of heavy industry; including a large garbage dump and coupled with poor housing and a severe lack of running water we find that there are lots of respiratory illnesses and skin rashes. These cases are particularly common among children as they are less physically developed. Also there is a big issue with diabetes as it is cheaper and more convenient to buy junk food if a household is working 16 hours a day. Finally, there are issues with teen pregnancies and sexual health in the area."
"Free is not enough, you need to make healthcare relevant to them."
Coming from the United States, where healthcare is expensive, Kara had thought that having free access to healthcare would mean everyone would use it. However, it soon became clear that free health services alone were not enough. For example with the Pap smear, it’s free for everyone and prevents cervical cancer as the test can identify any symptoms. Why, then, wouldn’t any woman want this test? The fact is that most women have never really understood the reasons for the test, and therefore never been checked. The important point is even if it is free, you need to make healthcare relevant to them if the locals were to take care of their health and take advantage of medical services available to them.
When she first came to Argentina, Kara did not have a medical background; she came from a marketing background in the United States. She however chose to pursue a career where she could "have a more direct impact on people’s lives," and has decided to become a nurse practitioner. When Kara returns to the US next year she will be starting her school work to further pursue this career path. Part of the reason she chose to volunteer with Voluntario Global is "getting a feel for what [this profession] will involve." She says that her 5-month long volunteer experience at the center, is giving her great learning opportunities on a personal level ("more so than expected"), not just professionally.