Friday, April 11, 2008

Volunteer Observations

Volunteer observations by Cameron Ling 10/04/2008

I’m starting to think that the aliens are sending down UFOs packed to the rafters with volunteers for Club ACORN. A more convincing explanation for their proliferation eludes me. Every five minutes a new volunteer walks in the door with a shy smile painted on their face as outside, little green men wave through the windows of a rather large, circular craft that then proceeds to vanish.
Really though, it’s a great thing to have met so many people there in these last few weeks. Every day more people come along who have, for whatever reason, decided to offer some of their time to the project. They come for a variety of reasons, but clearly money and fame are not among them: the money is non-existent and the fame limited to this blog and a few kids who can’t pronounce your name. But still they come, people from all countries, united by bad Spanish and the motivation to do something decent.
I’m an English teacher at the centre. Numbers in my classes vary from zero to a dozen. The classes of zero are my favourites because this means I put on my second hat: soccer player with the kids. The soccer-playing kids are fairly young, so when they kick me – and they always have at least a tap – it doesn’t hurt much. They are Argentine kids, however, so six years old or not, it’s not uncommon to have one wipe the floor with you, scoring screaming overhead kicks, diving headers and the like.
The building we use is owned by an Argentine Uruguayan Association (ARUBA). Plenty of framed photos and paintings of important-looking Uruguayans crowd the walls. When we play soccer, occasionally the ball strikes a frame and the frame falls to the ground. I then run over and pick it up, apologising to all and sundry for trying to drive a thirty-yard strike through the heart of the eight-yard indoor pitch. I usually apologise to the guy in the picture, too, just in case.
The soccer games are facilitated – mandated, I would argue - by the shape of our space. Imagine long fluorescent light globes like you see in schools, then the box said light might come in. Inflate the box but maintain its shape. Now you’re talking! Long, it is. Very long. The roof is quite high, too. Giants are welcome therefore, as are those who walk on stilts.
It’s early afternoon and the kids are painting some posters that are to be put up around the barrio to try and make surrounding streets safer. More on that in a sec. The concentration spans of the kids, however, are as limited as any kids’, anywhere. So soon we are on to a memory game, or chasing them up and down the space or just trying to decipher what they say when they talk to us in silly voices and change seats for no reason.
A kid walks in. It’s good to see him. He has a heart of gold, as all do, but he can be explosive and non-compliant all the same. We are mates through soccer and the small amount of time I have spent with him trying to decipher his homework. Today he has tears in his eyes and he is late. We don’t know why. We won’t know why. His behaviour is erratic and at times destructive. I don’t know how it will be today. The way he acts sometimes suggests that he has grown up around violence – too much. You don’t know these things, of course, but there is enough to lead one to wonder. He has progressed though. It is a joy to see him walk in and a pleasure to help offer a space such as this.
The street outside the centre is always busy. People walk past and their curiosity sometimes drags them inside. A thousand buses, trucks and alien spaceships pass by each minute, regaling us with their cacophony and making the centre seem a sanctuary. Another kid comes in, then another volunteer. Green men wave the volunteer goodbye and are gone. The boy however, is followed closely by his mother, and there are hello kisses all round. Our next visitor is the grandmother of one of the kids. She was here ten minutes ago. She has some soft drink and biscuits for us to use at afternoon tea. She is not a wealthy woman, undoubtedly, but she has gone to the supermarket because she knows the club has little money, that the workers are there of their own accord. Various members of the community donate things now: small, but useful things. They give what they can.
Last night there was a neighbourhood meeting that took place in the centre. Local residents, mostly older, came along to participate and support the process. Their immediate campaign goal is to stop trucks using local residential streets as Formula One practice tracks. Trucks are prohibited in the streets in question, but circulate through them with impunity. This has resulted in the deaths of various locals in recent years. As the footpaths around the barrio are in such a poor state - and many are raised with steep steps - the elderly, in particular, are forced to walk on the road itself. Thing is, the roads aren’t so wide, and the trucks, like all traffic in Buenos Aires, seem to go as fast as they can whenever they can. You get the picture. Local residents certainly do, and the kids at the centre have been painting signs to put up around the area to stand up for their rights.
The people who come to the meeting understand that governments, particularly theirs, will only offer any change to the status quo when impelled to. It’s inspiring then, to see people of scarce resources, many of them elderly, all of them aware of the myriad other problems they face both individually and collectively, coming together to work towards such a humble goal. Reminds you of the Margaret Mead quote - one of few universal truths, to my mind: ‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.’
Today I went around the barrio knocking on doors with Rossi, the supervisor for the centre. The idea was to get some support for an upcoming protest action around the truck issue and simultaneously spread the word about the centre and what we offer.
Rossi lives two hours away. She works full-time, travels two hours each way, each day, and has three boys, one only two years-old, who is currently sick and had her up until all hours the night before our doorknocking. Undaunted by the barriers placed in her way, she knocks on each door with a spring in her step and a genuine smile, and before people can brush her off delivers a speech about the upcoming action, the centre, the volunteers, the local kids. Most of them know her because it is not the first time she has come around to ask for their support.
In her spare time she is one of the students in my Tuesday night class, keen to learn, and always keen to have a laugh. We talk a bit about her time in Lima, Peru, and she tells me about the volunteer work she did there with homeless kids. She wasn’t involved with any organization, just helped homeless kids for years, in her own time, off her own back. This doesn’t surprise me. She tells me that she sometimes takes homeless kids around here for a coffee or something to eat, talks to them about their lives. When she goes to leave they hug her like you wouldn’t believe, she says. But I do, because I have seen some of these kids, asleep on the side of the street in their dirty rags, often out of their brains, in a world that would prefer they did not exist. I can understand their surprise, that she would take the time where the rest of us do the opposite.
Back in the centre, some new volunteers have come in, as has a certain five-year-old girl who, without fail, runs into the centre every day throwing her arms in the air and screaming, ‘They’re open! They’re open!’ I am giving a one-on-one English lesson at the front desk with one of our regulars, a teenage girl. The desk is close to our only permanent piece of furniture. Atop it sits a small vase that holds a small bunch of flowers. I don’t know how they came to be there, whose thought, whose few pesos brought them here, but they seem entirely appropriate.

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