Santa Cruz, Bolivia
No lloras mas, aquí estoy. En mi corazón, tu vivirás… Glenn Close’s Spanish version of Tarzan’ s “You’ll Be in My Heart” crooned to us from the television as the minutes until bedtime slipped by. Chin climbed onto my lap with sleepy eyes, mumbling “Quiero dormir.” We walked towards the boys’ dorm, brushed his teeth, and then enjoyed some rare quiet time together chatting and laughing. I stayed with him until he fell asleep, then tiptoed out.
After completing my graduate degree, I made a decision that would affect me for the rest of my life and departed for the unknown city of Santa Cruz, Bolivia. With each day that I spent at Mano Amiga, the orphanage where I volunteered in 1999, the children opened up and trusted me a little more. I learned about their families, dried their tears when they cried for home, and held them when they were upset or afraid. The work was exhausting and often frustrating, yet I was reminded daily of the importance of the contributions that I was making. Who else would teach José Miguel to tie his shoes, make time to play with Cinthia, and encourage Romer to be good at something? These were the moments that reminded me why I chose to travel to Bolivia.
With each passing day I also became aware of more and more instances that demonstrated just how much the children were uplifting me. They taught me about how to love, and about the things that are truly important in life. Stepping out of my comfort zone and into a new culture was not always easy for me, and when I was tired, lonely, or feeling homesick so far from all that was familiar, the children were always ready to give me support. María held my hand and smiled the smile of one much older than seven- she knew what it felt like to be lonely, too. Rocío would wrap her thin arms tightly around my neck and give me so many besitos (little kisses) that I would burst into giggles and beg “!No mas!” Surrounded by such energy and love, it was never very long before I felt better again.
My experience in Bolivia taught me – as no prior experience had been able to do – that we are all here on this earth to help one another, each of us watching out for the people around us, and the people around us watching out for us. Moments which are too much to handle alone are lightened when they are shared. Together we can be more content, full of joy, and at peace than we could be as isolated individuals in isolated communities.
Throughout our lives we will all have unique experiences that teach and shape us, and we will also learn through the experiences that others share with us. If I could leave you with only one lesson from my own volunteerism abroad, it would be to encourage you to pursue a similar experience yourself. The path may not be the easiest or the straightest, but the illuminations of the journey will live forever in your heart.