Saturday, March 29, 2008

An Ode to the Volunteers

The past few days have confirmed the fact that this project will continue after we leave solely because of one reason: our volunteers. With time, we’ve noticed that each week brings a new development: the first week we focused on finding students, the second week on finding supplies and materials, the third week on solidifying a stable group of students, and the fourth week on American volunteers. The ad we posted on Craig’s List has brought an overwhelming influx of emails into our inboxes—we have had over 40 responses of those who want to volunteer for us, and of those 40, at least 25 have already started. It has become an amazing place for the kids to rush to after school ends each day, and equally as fun for volunteers to hang out with one another. In fact, Thursday night we had a volunteer gathering at our apartment that lasted until 3 a.m.! The volunteers who have come to us through either ads or by word of mouth seem to have so much in common --- four of the new volunteers are actually fellow alumni from neighboring colleges of Bates (Connecticut College grads and one Williams grad). It really feels like such a small world, even though we are thousands of miles from home.
One of the most amazing things about Buenos Aires is the people that pass through. As a city that tops the charts for international tourism, we’ve noticed that it has become a “fad” for many college grads to move down here during times of transition. There are quite a few who are here “killing time” before law school, medical school, or fall employment start dates—and we have been fortunate enough to have such an educated and capable group of volunteers as there is such a high rate of skilled members of the workforce down here! Because of this, we have had musicians, theater professionals, artists, dancers, soccer coaches, and English teachers drop by during their free time (and with traveler’s schedules, many of them have extremely flexible and generous hours). It is such a talented group that whenever any child has a request for a specific type of activity, we are almost certain that there will be a volunteer with experience in that area to lead a class.
By talking to so many of our volunteers, we’ve realized that Club Acorn has filled a space that was lacking in Buenos Aires. So many people pass through who want to be involved in a volunteer program, but find no place to go. Many of the other volunteer groups here in Buenos Aires require volunteers to pay, while other organizations that are free of charge for volunteers are often criticized for their poor management and handout/charity mentality. As time has passed, Sara and I have realized that we founded Club Acorn for that very reason—we were looking for a place like this but couldn’t find it, so we created it ourselves.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Our Third Week: Sara's Reflections

This week we realized that we have a true community center. We were much more organized (thanks to the help of new and fantastic and energetic volunteers!) and the kids are responding well. We have formal English classes three times a week now, for adults and kids, as well as a new formal art class once a week taught by a Argentine professor! Add to this we still have new kids and adults coming by every day.

This week was really special for me because neighborhood members really started to get involved in the project, We had donations of old paper clips, a bag of sugar, notebooks, erasers, pencils, empty glass jars, old ribbons, cookies, crackers, and thankful mothers sitting with us and their kids all doing homework together. We had a group of elderly women from the community come in with materials for the kids to make hand painted signs to ask trucks to stop illegally and recklessly driving down our street, (a problem that has resulted in deaths of children and adults alike in Boca), and amidst macaroni necklaces, paper mache balloon eggs and Spanish story read alouds Ali and I looked at each other and suddenly realized that this is working and can only get better. That is not to say there have not been rough moments- kids out of control, a lot of Spanish swears, kids coming in without shoes and stealing from others… but we knew this was not going to be easy and we are not giving up on the kids or the project.

We rely on our volunteers, and there is a lot more we need to do. We had one woman come in and generously give her time and photography skills to take pictures of the center and the kids, and we have had countless other volunteers offer their skills and energy in various fashions. We had a meeting with ACORN and realized that to make this project sustainable for a year, we need to raise roughly $6000… a big goal but one that we think is possible. I do not want to see this center shut down after we leave- and I know the kids do not want that either. We will be having meetings this coming week with community members, ACORN, and volunteers and friends to brainstorm fundraising ideas and sustainability projects- any input is more than welcome!

I’ll leave you with an anecdote… one of our youngest regular kids is four years old. At the end of every day, we let them have a half hour of free time, during which most of the kids choose to play indoor soccer. Ali and I and Fabrizio, our four year old, were on a team against the older boys. In the heat of the game, Fabrizio turned to Ali and I and said, in Spanish, “muéstrelos quienes somos!” (Lets show them who we are!) Out of nothing, with the help and collaboration of too many people to list, we have created something truly special, and I think we should show people who we are, and show them that this is a project that is worth something and that can truly make a difference. We start and end all our emails the same way, saying how excited we are, so I hate saying it again… but we are excited and cannot wait to see what each week brings.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Our Second Week: Ali's Reflections

Our second week at the community center felt much more organized and controlled! We are getting used to seeing familiar faces, and have a core group of about 12 kids who we now see on a daily basis. Students are starting to get accustomed to the set-up of the center as they know they can’t move onto the arts and crafts/English lessons until they finish their homework. This week, the arts and crafts activities alternated each day…Monday we made play-dough, Tuesday we worked on potato impressions, Wednesday we made collages out of scrap paper, and Thursday and Friday we worked with paints.

On the volunteer side of things, we had 10 U.S. volunteers circle through this week, meaning that at some points, we had a ratio of 3 to 1 kids to volunteers! While we would like to expand on the number of kids we receive, it is nice to be able to give each one personal attention at this phase.

The response from parents and community members has been unbelievable. Thursday night we had a community meeting with a great showing! All the parents commented on a change in their children’s attitudes already—each day after school, the core group of kids now race to the community center. We always have kids waiting for us at the doors of the building before we open! Parents and neighbors are also starting to bring in snacks and small contributions (like notebooks, pencils, erasers, etc.), something we’ve been hoping for since the beginning. A local artist has also offered to give a painting class each Thursday afternoon! Community outreach is an integral part of ACORN’s mission, and the recent progress with the community has instilled in us a sense of optimism that the program has the potential to remain sustainable long after Sara and I return to the US in May.

We also posted listings on Craig’s List Buenos Aires, Ex-Pat Connections and other online forums about our need for volunteers and have already had many responses and inquiries about the positions. The response has been overwhelming- we have new volunteers coming in this week and we are excited to be able to expand and offer more individual one on one time for the kids and also get more volunteers in to the center to allow us to go out into the community and reach out to even more children.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Excerpts from the children's journals

We decided that we would give each child who came to the center their own journal- to write or draw in every day, either with exercises or free write/draw. They keep the journals at the center but it is a good way for us to learn more about them and for them to be able to express their thoughts, feelings, and hopes. We have included two examples, both of which were written in Spanish, but which we translated into English.

The first couple days, we had the children doing a variety of projects, one of which was creating an acrostic poem with their name and adjectives describing themselves. This is from one of our ten year olds.

Yo Me Llamo Ignacio.

Nariz Bueno
Orgulloso de Boca Juniors

Yo Me Llamo Ignacio.

My name is Ignacio.

Good Nose
Proud of Boca Juniors (the Boca neighborhood’s soccer team)

My name is Ignacio.

This is from an exercise we did with the children on what they wanted to be when they grew up. We asked them to pick a job, illustrate it and give us some reasons why they chose that profession. This is from one of a seven year old who has not missed a day of Club Acorn yet.

Cuando sea grande, quiero ser policia. Porque querio salvar a la gente. Quiero atrapar a los ladrones. Quiero proteger la puerta de la entrada.

When I grow up, I want to be a policeman. Because I want to save people. I want to capture the robbers. I want to protect my front door.

Our First Week: Sara’s Reflections

It was an amazing first week filled with energy and hard work, and we still have a long way to go, but this project has potential. We have realized, after seeing boys and girls aged 4- 16 come in on a daily basis that they are all hungry to learn, all hungry for attention, but that their attention span is limited and their aggression ample, and their Spanish slang considerable!

That being said, we truly did have an amazing week. We have had more than 30 children come in through the center, looking for homework help, tutoring, English classes, art or dance programs, or perhaps simply for a place to sit and draw… (or run around and play soccer indoors.) Add to this that we had six adults show up to our first once-a-week adult English class! We also had some volunteers join us which proved to be incredibly helpful- I think what works best at the center is allowing the kids to have one-on-one time. They are already in crowded classrooms in school where they seem to do a lot of copying off the board, so it makes sense that they are responding to personal academic stimulation, and I hope to continue to offer even more of that as our volunteer base grows. We have been introducing new small projects every day, ranging from drawing and labeling the body parts to practicing writing numbers and letters to writing poems to playing endless games of rock paper scissors and “semaforo” (stoplight). Many of these children are tough to work with- they come from homes where they may or may not live with parents and where drugs and jail time are often present. We have some kids who live in conventillos- abandoned houses where numerous families squat, each family claiming a single room. Our first day, we watched as seven kids walked out the door, only to reappear an hour later. They told us that it was time to “take their milk”, and since we didn’t offer it, they had to walk down to the politically based community center that passed out milk for free. We now serve milk every day.

At this point, we seem to be okay on materials, although we are quickly running through Global Education Funds 60 donated Spanish books- the children love reading and are hungry for stories and pictures. What we need now are money and bodies- both more volunteers and more community members. We are trying to accomplish this by continuing to walk through the neighborhoods door-to-door, yet we have also been successful in this endeavor by simply keeping the center doors open… new neighbors walk in every day and return the next with more children. We have had women stop by to donate notebooks, parents come in to have conferences with us about the learning needs of their children, and an art professor from Mexico ask if he could teach formal art classes (of course we said yes!)

Even though we only have one week under our belt, we want and need to start thinking about how to make this project sustainable for the future- I already know at least twenty children and additional adults who will be let down if this program does not continue when Ali and I head back to the states in May. We have some ideas already- two important ones being coming up with a grant-funded position to allow someone else to continue doing our work on a daily basis, and raising enough money to move ACORN into their own center so that the offices and community programs can co-exist more easily. This would be an amazing accomplishment- there is actually a space available two doors down from us, but at $2000 USD a month, it is currently out of our budget. But, as Rossi told us two months ago when we started this project, the fight will be tough, but the results will be all the better for it. For me, seeing children waiting for us to open the doors to the center when we jump off the bus is the result that makes it worthwhile.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

To Catch You Up To Speed….

Just to let you all know where our project stands, we are now sharing a building with ARUBA, (Asosiacion de Residentes de Uruguay en Buenos Aires), with an official start date of March 3rd 2008!

Due to our current budget and timeline, this is the most economically feasible option. The hope is to open a community center just for ACORN where they can move their offices, but this is a good space to initiate the project and begin to gather support in the neighborhood without having to spend extra costs on furniture or full rent. The center is centrally located on Avenida Patricios 566 (the street that divides La Boca and Barracas) and is also directly in front of multiple bus stops— ensuring easy access for commuting volunteers and community members.

In addition to the ACORN staff members (a.k.a. our “boss” and mentor Rossi, and the ACORN Latin America director Ercilia), we are now two full time Americans staffing and working this project. We also have many more American and Argentine volunteers who have already signed up for alternating shifts at the center.

For the past couple weeks, the two of us along with Rossi and other volunteers have been canvassing the neighborhood and walking door-to-door to talk with community members (all in Spanish!) about the project and their potential to be involved. Community members could not be more excited about the project- we have even had kids memorize the start date and location to spread the word to their friends. We formally presented the program to the community during a recent ACORN meeting in La Boca, and received an excited and positive response.

For the week of February 25th, we held double shifts by canvassing the neighborhood in the morning and holding open hours at the community center in the afternoon. While we only had one kid show up on Monday, we had 10 by Friday, and many more told us they would be there the following week! At our inaugural party for the neighborhood on Thursday, over 50 community members came together to learn more about the new center. Excitement has been building and we have realized that this project has the potential to be much bigger than we expected. Our expectations have also shifted a bit- we have realized that instead of just offering formal classes, we also need to adapt to the population we are serving. Many of these children are coming in off the street and just want a safe place to relax and have the chance to talk to someone. To meet those needs, we have decided to split the community center into 3 stations: one volunteer will always be on hand to quietly read and draw with the children while the other two will divide up between games and informal classes.

Wish us luck for our first day tomorrow!