Volunteering in Bolivia: Give a little, receive a lot


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South America » Bolivia » Oruro Department » Oruro
February 6th 2009
Published: March 10th 2009
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043 - Bolivia - Oruro

02/06/09 - 03/01/09

Volunteering in Bolivia: Give a little, receive a lot

A wise man once said, 'Give, and give freely, and you will receive tenfold more than that which you gave'. Such was the story of our time in Oruro, Bolivia; volunteering at a soup kitchen for underprivileged children and at a girls orphanage, and ultimately, experiencing a love and affection so pure that it brought both of us to tears upon leaving.

We were extremely blessed to have a contact in Oruro. Not just a contact, but the best possible friend you could want in a country like Bolivia. Meet Jhonny Lazarte Chavarria (yes, his first name is spelled correctly). Jhonny is a friend of Hannah's close family friend (Marcia) and has worked with her as interpreter, liaison, and project lead in his home country of Bolivia. Marcia, in turn, highly recommended that we call him upon our arrival. He volunteers countless hours of his time to his church, his church music band, and other projects around the community. He hooked us up with contacts at a comedor for ninos (soup kitchen for underprivileged children) and at a girls orphanage (Hogar Penny) run by Catholic nuns. Jhonny speaks English better than any local we met in Oruro, has a great apartment filled with Americans movies, and let us stay with him for free for the duration of our stay. Very, very, cool, that Jhonny guy!!!

Our daily volunteer work consisted of us heading to the comedor (soup kitchen) around noon and helping with the lunch. As children trickled in, Hannah would make sure they washed their hands, while I check marked their names from a master list. She would then bring each child their tray of food. We probably averaged about 100 - 150 children a day. For many of the children, the food from the comedor was their only meal of the day. Since the comedor was closed on weekends, many of them would be starving by the time Monday's lunch rolled around. The most amazing attribute of these underprivileged children was how well behaved they were! These toddlers to teens were polite to us, to the staff at the comedor, and to each other. They were grateful to have a hot meal and always greeted us and thanked us for their meal.

Around 2 PM each day, lunch would close for the children and the staff of the comedor would gather together to eat. The food was the same as the children received and was quite delicious. I must say, for my first time ever eating at a soup kitchen, it was pretty darn good!

After lunch, we would head to the girls' orphanage, the Hogar Penny. The orphanage is run by a Catholic organization called the Amor de Dios (Love of God). Five nuns ('hermanas' in Spanish) take care of the 95 girls, ranging in age from five to nineteen years old. Our main contact, Hermana Judith, was an energetic thirty-something nun that was excited to have us help out with her girls. Every day we would start out by having a brief English lesson. One challenge that the girls face, and most people in Oruro for that matter, is the lack of native Enlgish speakers makes learning the pronunciation of words very difficult. All children take 2 languages in school one day a week: English and a native indiginous language called Quechua the next. For this reason, we focused on speaking the language, rather than working on grammar, etc.

Although we helped a bit with the girls learning English, I would say that our primary achievement at the orphanage was just being there for the girls. The girls, like everyone in world, just need love and attention, and unfortunately, they don't have a traditional family from which to get that from. So, the large majority of our time at Hogar Penny consisted of giving hugs, showing affection, playing games, stroking hair, and just paying attention to each and every one of these girls.

I must say, both Hannah and I grew extremely attached to the girls. We felt a love that neither of us have ever experienced before: a pure love, untainted and unaffected by the byproducts of American consumerism. How many early-teen children do you know that are not only ecstatic when you give them a cheap leaf of stickers, but so considerate of their classmates that they share what little they have so as everyone gets a bit. Children that don't have ANY money, not enough to buy a cotton candy or a soda, much less any new toys or clothes.

In this aspect, our hearts were torn; why shouldn't these children be spoiled like kids in the States? Why shouldn't they get every opportunity to succeed that is available? If anyone deserves it, they certainly do! But such is life. Our goal wasn't to feed them financially (although we did contribute some much needed supplies to the orphanage), but to show them that there are people out there that do care for them. The nuns do a fantastic job in this regard and there is a strong family feeling throughout the orphanage, but still, it's nice to have outsiders, and maybe even the occasional male figure, that can also show them affection and love. In this way, I believe Hannah and I succeeded in reaching out to the girls.


Carnaval in Oruro

One of the things Oruro is famous for is having the best Carnaval celebration of the country, and arguably, the best celebration in the world (most non-Bolivians place Rio de Janeiro's party above Oruru's, but I've never seen that one so it's hard to compare). In any case Carnaval is a BIG deal for Bolivians, and everyone wants to come to Oruro for the celebration. Hotel prices go up 20-fold (or more) on the weekend of Carnaval. The president of the country
Practicing for Carnaval the week beforePracticing for Carnaval the week beforePracticing for Carnaval the week before

Can you see Nico and Hannah?
flies in, along with tens of thousands of other tourists, to be a part of this grand festival.

Bolivians, especially children, like to 'play' with water during Carnaval. Okay, it's not playing, it's grabbing dozens of water balloons and pegging each other with them the days leading up to, during, and after Carnaval. They've also got super-duper-soaker water guns, buckets of water, and canisters of 'spuma' (kind of like shaving cream) that they wreak havoc with. If you notice in the pictures of Carnaval, most people are wearing ponchos or wind-breakers. It's not that it was raining, it's that people are throwing water balloons at you and you want to stay dry! All of this is completely accepted by the culture of Oruro. You can't get mad at that little twirp and throw him off the bleachers no matter how bad you want to; you just have to suck it up, throw the occasional balloon back, and hope they don't gang up on you. Being the only male in a sea of girls from the orphanage, I got ganged up on by the boys of surrounding bleachers, but I held my own in the face of danger, and definitely smashed some balloons against faces, before accepting my defeat, and subsequent soaking of every piece of clothing I was wearing!!


La Paz and Copacabana

After leaving a piece of our hearts with the children of Oruro, we headed to the commonly mistaken capital of Bolivia, La Paz (the constitutional capital is Sucre but the administrative capital is La Paz so most people go with that). La Paz is literally built on the side of a mountain and makes for some amazing pictures. Happy to be in a big city, we got our share of good food, went to an American movie cinema, and enjoyed some 'Western' comforts after spending over three weeks in Oruro.

Afterwards, we headed to Copacabana, a city on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. Lake Titicaca looks like an ocean and stretches farther than the eye can see. It's also the highest altitude lake of its size in the world. We stayed at a fantastic hotel, ate delicious trucha (trout) every night, and rented a typical Bolivian sailboat on one of the days.


Well, such was the story of our time in Bolivia. We came with the intention of volunteering our time and giving to the community. Instead, we received ten-fold more than we gave, felt a love unlike any we've ever felt, and forged friendships that will surely last our lifetime.

Oh, about the wise man at the beginning of this story. Well, he's not a man after all. It's a woman that made that statement. A smart woman who convinced me of the power of giving, and the love you can feel when you give freely and without reserve. Her name is Hannah, and I, along with the children of Oruro, owe her thanks for this wonderful experience.

Next, we head to our final world destination before coming back to the States!! Next stop, Cuzco, Peru!


Here are more pictures of the children of Oruro, click here. Also, here is a great video of Hannah and the girls of Hogar Penny during Carnaval, click here for the YouTube link.


Additional photos below
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Abuelitas (grandmas) at the comedorAbuelitas (grandmas) at the comedor
Abuelitas (grandmas) at the comedor

Even though the comedor is just for children, nobody minds that these two abuelitas come in every day.
The Virgin of Socavon ChurchThe Virgin of Socavon Church
The Virgin of Socavon Church

The main church of Oruro, and one that is very special to miners of the area.


11th March 2009

keep the blog going!
I don't know about anyone else, but I would love to see this blog continue on through your U.S. travels! In fact, the rest of your lives??
13th March 2009

hair skills
Pretty cool to hear about you guys volunteering. Nice work! Can Nico show off his hair stroking skills when you guys get back to the states?

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