Voluntarios de la Esperanza, or VE Global, is an NGO operating in Santiago, Chile that recruits volunteers from around the world to work with at-risk children. Each volunteer gets assigned to one of the eight institutions with which we are partnered, which include a school for children with disabilities, a community center, homes for abused girls, and traditional orphanages.
The work in your institution will vary greatly depending upon where you are placed; some of the places we send volunteers are very structured and some are quite chaotic. In general, you are there to be there for the kids. Each institution is underfunded; many children receive little more than food and shelter from their homes and their schools. I think of the volunteer’s role as providing the second level on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs; they have food but they need somebody to spend Christmas with, a shoulder to cry on, and somebody to show them that there’s a city outside their home and a world outside of their city.
I am working with Residencia Entre Todas, a home for girls between 7 and 20 years old that have been removed from their homes by the government due to various types of abuse. As a fairly unstructured institution, Entre Todas affords the opportunity to run a wide range of activities. We have made hot air balloons with candles, balsa wood and plastic, conducted cool science experiments (a few matches in a bottle and an egg on top was one of them), crafted all sorts of crafts, played all sorts of sports (somebody had to bring them baseball), and learned to cook together. Volunteers have the opportunity to share their passions with the kids; I bring in my guitar and chessboard and other volunteers bring in their cameras and dance CDs.
Almost all of the institutions participate in VE Global events and programs. Once a month we gather kids together for Liga de Deportes and we dance, learn karate and play soccer, ping pong and tennis. About twice a year we hold our festival de arte, for which the children from all the institutions prepare works of art and live performances and win prizes. We also have an English program that runs every week as well as a reading program that runs over the summer.
I have been a part of VE for only about four months so far, and they have been four of the most enriching months of my life. I come from a well-to-do family in the suburbs of Philadelphia and attended university in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Before Santiago I had never been exposed to any place like Entre Todas or a school that teaches multiplication by handing out charts and instructing the kids on how to use them. I had never had relationships like the ones I have with some of the girls; I had never been a tío. I am still digesting everything that I have seen and I imagine I’ll be reflecting on these experiences for the rest of my life.
While I have been opening my eyes and looking where I’ve never looked, I have also been exploring a city and culture with a different language, different food, and even different seasons and stars (my first visit to the Southern Hemisphere). Santiago is enormous and offers whatever you may be looking for, be it beautiful mountains for hiking, a central Plaza with a great chess scene, or any given type of music or art.
The organization is young; our director is the dinosaur at 34 years old. Though I may have even felt a hint of skepticism upon arrival, it was almost immediately replaced with a sense of empowerment.
When you start at VE Global, you truly are part of a team, a team doing work that yields tangible and gratifying results while guiding a small and malleable organization towards its potential. The sky really is the limit here, and wherever you set your sights, you will gain perspective, you will grow, and neither you nor your kids will ever regret it.