As my time is coming to a close here in Chile, I have been thinking about the experiences that have really come to shape my time abroad. Without a doubt, volunteering once a week at Doming Savio, an after-school boys and girls club, has been one of my most meaningful endeavors. Doming Savio is located in Santiago, but on the outskirts, far away from the upper-middle class areas of Providencia, Santiago-Centro and Las Condes. The children of Domingo Savio see it as their second home, a safe place to go so that their often single mothers can work grueling hours to make ends meet.
Silvana and Isa from IFSA-Butler really encouraged us to take part in some form of volunteering activity. I didn’t know much about the organization when I signed up, but I was eager to continue my work with kids, a big part of my life at Georgetown with the D.C. Schools Project.
Starting about mid-August, three other girls from my program and I headed to Domingo Savio to meet the runners of the organization and the kids. That first day I was amazed to discover that every child that walked through the door, upon seeing us, politely greeted us with a kiss upon the cheek and an, “Hola Tía” or “Hello Aunt.” What makes Domingo Savio so special is that Tío Jorge, Tía Olga, and the other volunteers/ teachers make it their mission to instill good values within the kids, from washing their dishes, to treating their elders with respect. Everyone is treated as family, and the organization provides as much as possible to the low-income families, such as supplies of toilet paper or breakfast kits.
Anyway, I began my role as Tía. Although I was treated with total respect, I felt completely useless. As we were new to volunteering, we were unfamiliar with the routine, and where materials were kept, so often the kids would be the ones directing us. Our main tasks consisted of helping out with homework, from math to English, then playing games and assisting with crafts or cooking workshops, and finally preparing “once, “or their 6pm snack. I’d say my awkwardness, at least, was in large part due to my lack of a good grasp on the language. Before arriving in Santiago, I thought my Spanish was pretty good. However, coming here, being forced to think in Spanish constantly, and having the kids speaking rapid-fire Spanish in the typical Chilean fashion, with Chilean slang thrown in, I was pretty lost. Consequently, I felt like I was more of a liability than an asset when I first began volunteering.
Slowly, that all began to change. While yes, I’m sure that as my Spanish improved, my usefulness increased; however, a huge part of how I began to feel more at ease and more a part of the Domingo Savio community is all due to the kids. They treated us tías with the expected respect, but they also joked with me in unexpected ways. One day, as I was helping some kids with homework, Felipe* asked me how to say “fat” in English. Rather naively, I told him, and he then proceeded to taunt his friend Alvaro*: “You’re fat, you’re fat!” Alvaro, rather than be upset, turned to me with a grin and shrugged, “He’s calling me fat, but we are both obviously fat”. I couldn’t hold my laughter, and soon we were all laughing together. The great thing about Domingo Savio, like I said, is more like home to the kids than school. It’s supposed to be both a break from school and a safe space at the same time. While perhaps this interaction would be considered inappropriate in a U.S. school, it was just one of many jokes that were perfectly acceptable at Domingo Savio, and what makes it so fun for the kids.
Finally, we had a routine. I didn’t really feel like I was volunteering in the sense that it was an obligation. I looked forward to laughing with the kids, giving lessons in English, helping with multiplication tables, dancing Zumba together, and preparing cheese sandwiches each Thursday. But what really made this activity so impactful in my overall experience abroad is that I got to see and be a part of another Santiago. I learned about another Santiago that one cannot easily see in the la Universidad Católica or Costanera Center. Chile is considered one of the most advanced and developed countries in the region, but just like in any other city, we can’t forget that there are families struggling as well. It was inspiring to see families work so hard to provide their children with as much opportunity as possible. Domingo Savio has strict requirements for the families in order for their children to remain in the club: incentives such as working the hours that the children are cared for. Everyone, from the parents, to the Tíos and Tías, to the children, contribute to the sense of community. I felt more involved, like a part of the city, due to this experience with Domingo Savio.
Last week I said my goodbye to Domingo Savio and everyone who is a part of it. I am not sad because I know that the kids are in extremely capable and caring hands. I am mostly just thinking how cool it was that I got to be a part of it all.
*Names have been changed