Co-workers, Cheetohs, Chikungunya, Quakes and Culture Shock
Hazel, VC Volunteer in Mexico
My year in Mexico was one of mutual contribution.
Not long after returning home to Ireland from a few years of teaching English in Spain, I knew I wanted to volunteer internationally before diving into my Masters in International Development. Like many others, my search for volunteering opportunities began on Google. While researching about where and with whom I wanted to volunteer, a series of questions arose. I had to reflect upon my motivations for volunteering. How much time had I to give? How far was I willing to travel? Where and how could my new found language and professional skills be applied best? And most importantly for me, what organisation could I trust to send me abroad? I found myself trawling through waves of sending organisation’s websites. After some extensive research and casual chats with friends of mine who had volunteered abroad, I knew that I wanted to volunteer for about one year, teach English and preferably be located in a Spanish speaking country. That is when I came across Viatores Christi (VC). This sending organisation, based in Ireland, kickstarted my journey to Mexico.
I applied to volunteer with VC through their website like you would for most jobs. I sent them my CV and a cover letter and eventually had an interview with them. Through this process, I felt that VC got a good idea of who I am as a person and what project I was best suited to. My skills and experience were matched to NPH Mexico, who I will tell you about a little further down. Before packing my suitcases and crossing the Atlantic, I had to complete mandatory training as part of my pre-deployment preparations. Aside from the training, there were also other boring but crucial steps whose completion were imperative to my year abroad. I had to get vaccines, insurance and sign a contract with my host organisation. While these tasks may not be glamorous, they were essential.
I cannot stress enough the importance of my pre-departure training. Despite having worked abroad in a European context, this training prepared me for working abroad in a voluntary capacity and in a country, which embarrassingly, I didn’t know very much about. The training was spread out over the course of a few months and consisted of modules such as: Health & Security, Project Cycle Management and Inter-cultural awareness, amongst others. When I began to get stuck into my work in Mexico, some of my co-workers commented on my willingness to listen and take direction, rather than imposing my views on them from the start. This was a key lesson that I had learned in my training, to be aware that throughout my project but particularly at the start, that it is important to listen to your co-workers as they know more about the on the ground scenario. I found that my hesitation to throw out new ideas and critique the work of those around me gave my co-workers space to trust me and for a relationship to be built.
I volunteered as an English teacher at a secondary school and as a caregiver at NPH Mexico. NPH or Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (Our Little Brothers and Sisters) is an organisation that is based in several countries in Latin America. Their origins are with the Catholic Church and the organisation was started by a Priest named Father Watson who was based in Cuernavaca, Mexico. He started a children’s home for orphaned and abandoned children, which is where I worked. The organisation is focused on providing a home, quality education and health services to children and young adults. NPH is slowly moving away from institutional style care for children and towards the ‘one family’ model, where they assist families in taking care of their children in the familial home.
My work at NPH Mexico was varied. In the mornings, evenings and at the weekends I took care of girls aged from 11 to 16 years old. During the week, I worked as a secondary school English teacher. The long work hours were tough, and my sending agency helped me to negotiate better work hours with the volunteer co-ordinator in Mexico. At first, I struggled with my new role. Classroom sizes were fine, with about 25 students per class, but the levels of English and even of Spanish varied greatly amongst the students. Many of the kids had a huge disparity in access to education prior to coming to the home, and some had little to no Spanish upon arrival. Many of the students were from Indigenous backgrounds and spoke Nahuatl or Mixteco, languages that are unrelated to Spanish. At times I connected best with these students. We bonded over our mutual learning, as I quickly came to realise the stark contrast between the Spanish I had learned in Spain and the Spanish that I would need to live, work and make friends in Mexico.
Teaching at the school alongside an all-Mexican staff taught me different styles of teaching and over time I began to share my teaching style with my co-workers. I learnt so much from the other English teacher, who was from the neighbouring town to the school. She helped me to connect with the students, understand cultural references and work attitudes. Working together as a team allowed us to incorporate more fun into the classrooms. My co-worker would focus on the curriculum while this gave me the opportunity to help the students with their literacy and speaking skills on a one-to-one basis. My co-worker and I really believe that this helped a lot of the children to gain a new-found confidence not just in English, but in their ability to learn. Teenagers are already self-conscious, so this time of one-to-one learning gave them the safe space to read aloud and to make mistakes without the judgement of their peers. I felt that this volunteering opportunity allowed me to provide practical support that moved beyond the regular education objectives.
One of the key contributions of the volunteers to the home was the running of Proyecto Familiar (Family Project). A big part of what NPH does is keep siblings together. This is where volunteers come in. Due to the high demands of meeting all the children’s needs, it was not always possible to ensure that siblings got to hang out by themselves. To ensure that families had some quality time together, every Sunday volunteers would arrange a hang out between siblings and cousins - they play board games, eat snacks and just chat and have fun as a family, away from the rest of the home. This was an important opportunity for families to connect and it also offered a great photo opportunity. These pictures would be printed and given to the children to keep. As a volunteer I facilitated these family meet ups, and they remain one of my most positive memories of volunteering. Some days these meet ups were difficult. Sometimes siblings didn’t want to see each other and sometimes they didn’t get along, something which I think most people can relate to, families fight with one another. However, some days I managed to get these families to push past their issues and hang out (even if it did come with the bribe of Cheetohs). On these days I got the feeling that I was doing something great.
Surprisingly, I didn’t have a major culture shock upon my arrival to Mexico. Mexican culture stole my heart. For starters, Mexican food is infamous worldwide and with good reason, it is the best! I happily gained weight while living there. I also learned how to dance (kind of – my dance skills are debatable). The frequent local and national holidays and celebrations, such as Dia de los Muertos, were filled with music, dancing, food and more often than not, fireworks. Living in a country with so many traditions and a mix of cultures gave me so many opportunities to have fun and make friends. All of that being said, there were still some cultural differences that I have to acknowledge. During my first few weeks in Mexico, my co-workers advised me against taking trips to certain areas and walking at night, or alone. From the start I took on any advice in relation to my own security, even when it went against my nature. I was used to walking around on my own in Madrid without any real precaution. This quickly changed as my attitude adapted to the local context. Nothing ever happened to me in terms of personal safety and I believe this was due to the advice of my colleagues and friends.
Life at NPH was not without its challenges. My pre-departure training had me well prepared for my role as a volunteer, but it couldn’t prepare me for some of the problems that arose on my year away. I arrived in Mexico in July 2017. Two months later, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake struck the Puebla area of Mexico on September 19, at 1:14pm. I was teaching a class at the time. I was correcting one student’s work when I heard another student shouting “esta temblando, esta temblando” (“It’s shaking, it’s shaking”). Within seconds, the entire class was evacuated safely. Thankfully, we had carried out training that very morning about what to do in case of an earthquake. It was almost surreal. The following hours, days and even months were filled with emergency response. Due to the destruction caused by the earthquake, school was moved outdoors to tents until February 2018. We all had to adapt to the new context. The team on the ground, the caregivers, the teachers and the kids themselves taught me so much about how to adapt to a new situation.
Not long after the earthquake, I contracted Chikungunya. According to the World Health Organisation: “Chikungunya is a viral disease transmitted to humans by infected mosquitoes. It is caused by the chikungunya virus (CHIKV)”. I was laid up in bed for two weeks. I felt totally useless. Everyone was pulling together to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake, and here I was, lying in bed and reading books. Fortunately, once I recovered completely and got back to work, my co-workers had a new-found respect for me. It was quite funny to hear my co-workers make jokes about how now I was a ‘real’ Mexican since I had experienced Chikungunya (similar to Dengue fever). At this time, between getting sick and experiencing the earthquake, I truly realised how dependent I was on those around me. The sending organisation supported me but it can never match the support of the people who you are working with directly on the ground, in my experience.
People often ask me about what contribution I made while volunteering. Sometimes this question can be tricky. Yes, I do believe that I made a contribution. But I think it is outweighed by what the volunteering experience gave me. Throughout the year there was a huge amount of mutual learning between me and my co-workers. My Spanish improved immensely and I acquired new styles of teaching. Likewise, my co-workers were introduced to different ways of teaching that I brought with me from Spain and we saw the student’s literacy and language skills improve. Above all else, human connections were made. I have since returned to Mexico to go back and visit the home, the students and my old colleagues. I hope to continue these trips throughout my life as Mexico has become a second home to me. Lifelong connections have been made.