“The school had no showers and we were told to use the least amount of water as possible, given the fact that place faced a range of water shortage issues. We would just wash our face and clean ourselves with wet wipes.”
“Volunteering thrusts you smack-dab in to the heart of a culture like nothing else.”
I don’t remember who told me this. Maybe it was a friend, an acquaintance, a stranger who struck up a conversation when we drank beer. Or maybe the sentence itself was built up from stories about volunteering I had heard. Regardless of the source, I could bet on it when I volunteered with Techo after barely a week in Peru.
Techo (or “roof’ in Spanish) is an organization based in South America and the Caribbean. While Techo is into building houses for the poor, it has often been involved in emergency efforts during floods and other natural disasters. The most recent disaster in my memory was the flood in Peru, where the organization worked in Lima, Piura and Chiclayo. Techo receives donations from big banks and corporate organizations, and mostly work on weekends so that they could get the maximum number of volunteers. The volunteers help with construction and any other tasks they might have.
On a sweltering Thursday afternoon in April, right before the long Easter weekend, my then girlfriend Ane and I took the metro to meet up with the other volunteers in a stadium in Lima. I was overwhelmed with the sheer number of volunteers from the get-go. And the fact that, most of the volunteers seemed to be 20 or younger.
Techo has a big presence in the university campuses, mainly thanks to a lot of promotion and events. And, if a student volunteers for Techo, they earn university credits based on their efforts. Doesn’t take much to guess that quite many students are drawn to volunteer for this reason.
All of the volunteers headed over to 3 different schools. I headed to the Aceptación School in the Pamplona District in Lima with a bus full of volunteers. Starting from ‘Y se llama Perú’, the volunteers sang karaoke for the duration of the drive: 90 minutes until we reached our home for the next 3 nights.
I was extremely excited with the prospect of building new houses, but sadly, that didn’t happen the weekend I volunteered. Our volunteer time was spent surveying the households and doing community work. By doing this, we were able to get a feel for the people who needed a house most. Pamplona is an infamous, dangerous neighborhood in Lima and we had left our cell phones in the school with the rest of our stuff. A few experienced volunteers stayed back to guard the place. And the rooms as well as the school gate, were locked.
On Friday, we worked on fixing the hand-rails. We would first identify the weakest parts of the rails, then pour concrete at the foundation of the beams supporting them. We always worked in groups, and once we were done with our part, we would help out the other volunteers. After we fixed the handrails, we painted them. The people of the community would often throw us appreciating smiles, and the head of the community would hang out and help us when needed.
We spent the whole Saturday surveying different families with a questionnaire (5 pages, front and back). All of us would be in groups of 4 or more people. We knocked on doors, went inside the houses, and asked all kinds of questions about the household. The surveys helped Techo to help reach a decision about who was in real need of assistance. I, personally, was of no use this day because of my limited Spanish and mostly stuck to the listening part. I decided to help out the other volunteers staying back at the school the next day.
So, how did that go?
When the other people left for the survey, two guys and I cleaned the school premises on Sunday. We then collected all of the luggage from the classrooms (which had been our humble abode for the last few days), and sorted them in rows next to main gate. Everyone had packed that morning before they left for the community, as instructed. Of course, we were careful enough not to mix stuff up. The plan was this: “they all come back, pick up their stuff and leave. Like that. In 10 minutes.” Now, imagine this: you come back, and you are trying to locate that grey and black bag that’s somewhere lost in the army of other bags next to each other.
What was an average day like?
The day always kicked off at 6:30am, more or less, with a basic breakfast of 1-2 pans and coffee. Then we would go for a round of workout with the funniest music ever. This was always followed with group discussions or fun games with a message, and we left the school premises around 9:00am.
Every day, we had lunch at a community hall where a few women from the community cooked lunch for us. The lunch was humble, basic food that was always delicious. In a world where so many people are dying everyday of hunger, the one thing I have learned about food is: be thankful.
After lunch, we worked for a few more hours until nightfall. The school had no showers and we were told to use the least amount of water as possible, given the fact that place faced a range of water shortage issues. We would just wash our face and clean ourselves with wet wipes.
Every night, we would have meetings, discussions, and cool impromptu group activities. Something that Techo always does is the fact that they make and break groups frequently. Their goal is to help people break out of their comfort zones, but they did it so many times that I could barely tell where I was. And, as Ane was the translator for me during that time, they would always count us as one, and move us together. Take that into consideration.
The dinner was always humble, and we would go to bed before 11:00pm.
Things to know:
- Construction experience is never a pre-requisite, but it may be beneficial at the same time. They always have someone experienced in charge.
- They always need you to pay a small fee ($10-$15 as far as I know). This fee covers transportation, food, accident insurance and a t-shirt.
- They take bottled drinking water with them, as the places where the actual work happens, often don’t have access to clean water. But, it’s always a good idea to take water with you.
- While they often ask you to bring bug repellants, snacks, water, toilet paper and wet wipes, a couple of things that absolutely make or break the deal are a sleeping bag and working shoes. You often sleep on the floor and it’s never a good idea to put on those cool beach sandals for hot weather no matter how trendy they are.
- No alcohol, no drugs, no sex.
The fun bits
It’s not always the volunteer-your-ass-off Techo, there is the ‘fun’ Techo as well. The fun Techo comes with games of tying balloons to your feet and chasing everyone and trample their balloons. Games where 14 people in a group have to have 50 body parts touching the ground, and then all of a sudden, 5 body parts. Techo always keeps things on the interesting side, so that you don’t have any dull moments…even if you are not a volunteering junkie.
If your way of traveling is to give back to the society, kudos and high fives to you. If you comment your experience down below, I would be even more thankful.