When I signed up to volunteer in the bustling tropical Bolivian city of Santa Cruz, the thought of learning just as much from the kids I was supposed to be mentoring had never crossed my mind.
Fast forward to 11am on a hot, humid Monday morning at the Luz Del Mundo (Light of the World) organisation and after spending a tranquil hour in the shade being shown how to braid a beautiful thread bracelet by ten-year-old Janeth, her friend Emmanuel is giving me lessons on the panpipes.
My feeble downward-blowing attempts have descended into a sort of pathetic spluttering whistle, but Emmanuel is very patient and expertly guides me through the notes for the heroic local anthem “Viva Santa Cruz”.
Phil has just finished creating cardboard castles and knights to substitute those missing from a dog-eared chess board and is now sitting, furrow-browed, beside seven-year-old Franklin who is proving to be a bit of a whizz at the game.
We have been spending our days at this little haven within the run-down, dirt-streets of the Plan 3000 barrio, teaching basic English, playing games, cooking and clearing up after the dozens of underprivileged children who come here for four mornings a week.
Luz Del Mundo’s founder, Gabriela Rojas Llave, has been tirelessly working to keep the little organisation alive with no state funding since it took up roots in 2002.
The youngsters here, aged from two to about 14, are from impoverished families – often with only one parent or carer who struggles to provide for them – and at worst have to work themselves while also trying to attend school.
It is believed 60% of the local population here live in poverty, while 40% live in destitution.
Gabriela, from a similar background to many of the children, hopes Luz Del Mundo will help boost their skills, confidence and above all, give them access to the happy childhood every kid deserves.
She says: “This part of Santa Cruz is the poorest community, with a lot of impoverished families. That means there is more crime and a lot of drugs. Families of five to seven people are often living in just one rented room.
“I think the image of a place depends on the people who live there. I may not be able to change this place, but I can make a difference.
“I believe the children here deserve an opportunity to learn skills like playing musical instruments and English – something they would never be able to afford otherwise. With volunteers’ help, they can.”
Gabriela tells me while it is currently the school holidays, some of the children can’t come to Luz Del Mundo because they are having to work in construction, driving horse and carts or selling bread and other goods on the streets to support their families.
Normally there are around 80 kids who are able to take part in the club over the course of an average week. But come Christmas, when those who have to work have the day free, this figure escalates to 150. The youngsters gather to eat special food, play games, sing and receive a Christmas present.
“We throw the doors wide open,” smiles Gabriela.
“When I was a little girl I always wanted a doll or toys to play with but we could never afford them. My mum raised us alone and it was too expensive for her. Now, it’s nice that we can provide the children with those sorts of things.”
News of the small community’s valuable work spread, prompting acts of incredible kindness and trust.
There is the man who regularly pays the fees needed to keep the organisation’s website up and running – despite never having been able to visit himself – and a former volunteer who cashed in a plane ticket to donate the money towards securing the project house, when Gabriela found out the landlord was going to sell it off. And then the many volunteers who come equipped with all manner of talents to spend time with the children.
Gabriela says she hopes Luz Del Mundo will never have to close and that one of her young children, Mariana or Franco, will eventually follow in her footsteps.
Twelve-year-old Álvaro wanders over to watch me fail miserably at the panpipes.
I ask him why he likes the project. He leans his head to one side and considers the question a while, before sweetly replying: “Because it helps us a lot. They provide us with school materials and English lessons. We learn how to make things and to play. There are presents and prizes and songs. We share things.”
His last comment makes me think back to our very first day here – Phil and I got out of the taxi and spent the next few minutes wandering around the busy street market asking people if they had any idea where the organisation was.
Out of nowhere, a small boy gently touched Phil’s arm.
“Teacher? Luz Del Mundo?” he asked with a grin.
And then more children appeared on the scene, until we had a group of them excitedly taking our hands and leading us down the sewage-strewn road to the project base.
Far from being a one-sided experience, the children at Luz Del Mundo are being actively encouraged to share and help whenever they can. What could be more valuable than that?
*To find out more about the project visit www.volunteersouthamerica.net/LuzDelMundo/ldm_index.htm
***Luz Del Mundo is appealing for donations to help fund a Christmas present for each child this year***
If anyone would like to contribute, donations can be made through Western Union or MoneyGram. Recipient details as follows:
Name: Coral Gabriela Rojas Llave
Identification Number: 3934872
Address: Luz Del Mundo, Plan 3000, Barrio 12 de diciembre, Santa Cruz, Bolivia.