After a far too festive going-away celebration and one more day helping at the center in Taltal, Chile, I boarded a bus for a long day and a half of travel to cross from Chile into Argentina. While looking for volunteer opportunities to replace my original plan for September and October, I used a website called IVHQ (International Volunteers Headquarters) that organizes volunteer opportunities around the world. Through them, I found a program in Cordoba, Argentina working with special needs adults. It seemed like a new challenge and quite different than my previous experiences.
On that Sunday, I arrived in Cordoba and was taken to the volunteer house in a small town on the outskirts of Cordoba. Upon arriving, I met a group of volunteers from different countries (Mexico, Switzerland, Ireland, Canada, Peru, New Zealand, and the US) who were working in a variety of projects related to the program, some with child-care, some with construction, some with the elderly of the community. It reminded me a little bit of a “Real World” type situation (and has given me an idea for a new reality show!), but, more importantly, it was yet another opportunity for cultural exchange, as well as many fun memories over the next two weeks.
After a day for orientation and logistical items, Tuesday was my first day at my placement: a small center named Un Lugar en el Mundo (A Place in the World). In total, the center has about two dozen patients with the majority of them in their 30s and 40s, although there were a few older as well. As far as their abilities, there was a vast range. A couple of the patients seemed to be very high functioning, at about the level of a 10 or 12-year old child. These patients often helped with many tasks and interacting with the other patients. They would often be the ones to pour and serve the mate (the traditional Argentinian tea) during breaks. Others were more at the level of younger children, and others were almost completely uncommunicative, with little to no motor skills as well, including a couple of patients confined to wheel chairs who could not communicate at all.
Over my time with the center, I got to learn about the personalities and eccentricities of each of the patients. One was a woman who was like a toddler just learning to speak in that her most common phrases (in Spanish) were “How are you?’, “And you?”, and “Why?” It started as annoying, and then it became something I just adapted to, and, now, weeks later, it has become something I kind of miss hearing. There was another gentleman, suffering from Down Syndrome and unable to speak, who hugged anyone and everyone whenever he first saw them, and loved to dance during the free time when music was played, and people could socialize rather than having any set activity. However, he could also have horrible temper tantrums if he was unhappy about something. There were a couple of patients that could be a little bit dangerous: one woman that would aggressively pinch people if they were close and not paying attention, another woman that would roughly shove people, and a man that would sometimes hit other patients. All of this made each day a challenge, but completely worthwhile.
What really got to me, though, was the weight of the situation in general. There were many times, especially in the first few days, that I was close to tears as I saw things like a 71-year old man working on two-digit sums as part of his lessons or a grown woman crying because she wanted to continue drawing but it was time to stop. As difficult as those types of things to see are, it was nothing compared to what more I learned from the staff. I had noticed that many of them wore tattered clothing that was barely staying together, and I wondered about this condition. Then I learned why. Many of the patients had been abandoned as children and have lived in a government-run “orphanage” for most of their lives. Many of these patients had been tossed aside, same as the rags they wore. As easy as it may be to do otherwise, I need to withhold judgement of their families, because it may in fact have been their only legitimate option. Rather, the judgement lies with you and me, all of us, those of us who continue to maintain a society in which people can be cast aside as little more than stray animals.
It is moments and experiences like this that introduce me to the unsung heroes of this world. Incredible human beings like Caro and Vicki and Maria and Simi and so many others that strain their patience each day and then treat these patients with the love and respect they should receive but are denied by this cruel world we have created.
The activities ranged throughout my time there. Sometimes, a few of the higher functioning patients would help in the kitchen and help bake treats that would be served as snacks and refreshments for the other patients. Other times, there would be gardening outside or small handicraft projects to engage the patients in active and productive tasks. Almost every day, as I noted earlier, there would be free time for music and dancing. The smiles on the faces beamed as they danced to both traditional and popular dance music. Occasionally, the staff would pull out small drums so that the patients could play along, or plug in a microphone to have a bit of a karaoke session.
Meanwhile, during that time, I also was able to learn more about the fellow volunteers I was living with, who were working on their own projects. Since I did not work the other programs, I only learned about them from the periphery, but not nearly enough that I could share much quality information. However, it was inspiring to meet these people who had decided to pay out of pocket to come to another country in order to make a difference in some way. Some of them were on gap years from school, or other similar long-term travel (like myself) and others took their precious vacation time to serve others.
On my first night in the house, I stayed up late speaking with a young woman, originally from Mexico, who had just finished high school, and was taking a gap year. She had thought about going back to Mexico to help with the recovery from the recent earthquakes, but had decided to follow through with her plan to come to Argentina. I could sense the desperation in her of wanting to do something meaningful but not feeling as though she truly was making any difference at all. All I could do was tell her my philosophy that, often, all we can do is persevere and do the best we can. The world can be a horrible place, but even if we don’t change the world, as long as we have not allowed its cynicism and fatalism to change us and convert us to join in the hopelessness, we will have won our own personal battle. It was a conversation that took me back to my time as a high school teacher, having many long conversations with a young people still trying to figure out their place in the world and the path they would take through it.
After two far too short weeks, it was time for me to move on from Cordoba. My last day at the center, I found myself becoming emotional yet again. However, it was much different this time. When I started at the center, my emotions were based on pity for the situation these people were living in. However, as I prepared to leave, I did not feel pity. Instead, I realized that I had come to view these patients beyond just their disabilities, but as people I was going to miss. They made it even more meaningful by making a small poster for me as a thank-you gift. It was yet another humbling experience that I did not deserve.
The next morning, I packed up my stuff and was soon on a bus for a 24-hour ride to northern Patagonia and the small city of Bariloche in the lake district, where I was going to spend about 3 weeks working on an educational farm.
After the long bus ride, and another local bus ride, and then walking down a side gravel road, I had arrived at Rock-Heim Farm. I met the owners, Alex and Cris, and then their long-term helper, Fran, who I would be sharing the guest house with. The guest house was a nice simple dwelling, only heated by a wood-burning stove. The next morning my work would begin.
Sometimes, I would help with animal care, feeding and watering chickens or rabbits. Alex or Fran took care of the other, larger animals: the sheep, hogs, and the small herd (only 3) of Jersey cattle. Most of my work was spent cleaning up the farm and making repairs following the damage from the winds and snows of the winter. Or working the ground of the small gardens to prepare for spring planting.
The farm was small and not focused on much production, but rather to serve as an example of farming practices, plants, and animals, for visiting school groups. This was obvious to me as, coming from a farm background, much of what was done seemed extremely inefficient to me, but since it is done on such a small scale, it makes a bit more sense to me given their goal of education.
I enjoyed working outside and being able to go for small walks in the afternoon, or going to some of the surrounding areas on the weekends. It was also nice to be disconnected for a while, and enjoying the simple lifestyle. I would go into the town of Bariloche when I needed to perform an online task, as well as sample the various cervecerias (micro-breweries) as Bariloche seems to be the beer capital of South America. (When I was in college, I considered studying abroad in Argentina, but never followed through. Now that I have sampled the beer, wine, meat, and chocolate, I have come to realize how big of a mistake that was!)
While I was there, we only had one school group come by, but Alex told me more would start coming later in the season, especially in the fall. Another was actually scheduled to come the week after I finished there. Growing up around small/medium sized farms, focused on production, it was great to get a different experience. In my opinion, the experience reinforced the concept of specialization and how large-scale operators are much more efficient at meeting the food needs of a growing population. But it also gave a good perspective in trying to maintain a balance and sustainable practices, which even the large-scale farmers should try to emulate, since we only have so many resources available and must make them last as long as possible.
Regardless of the “organic vs commercial” farming debate, one undebatable positive aspect of what Cris and Alex are doing with their small farm is the educational outreach. Far too many people are too far-removed from their food. They only see it in the super-market, and their knowledge of farming is only from media consumption (TV, movies, books, etc.). It would be great if all people could connect with and learn more about agriculture first-hand. After all, agriculture is the foundation of civilization. If humans never developed agriculture, we would likely still be living as primitive hunter-gatherers. Therefore, it is important for all of us to better understand the practices and challenges of agriculture. (I am obviously biased in this situation, but deal with it!)
After about three weeks working on the farm, in the shadow of the Patagonian Andes, it was time to move on yet again. I said my farewells, hugged Fran, Alex, and Cris, and got on the local bus to Bariloche to take another long bus ride down to the wilds and beauty of Southern Patagonia.
For more information related to special needs:
IVHQ – The organization that I went through to get the special needs placement in Cordoba, Argentina
Un Lugar en el Mundo – The adult special needs center I worked with in Villa Allenda, on the outskirts of Cordoba
Here are some links that provide lists of other special needs organizations:
For more information related to my placement on the Patagoinian farm and agricultural education
Rock-Heim Farm – The farm outside of Bariloche where I worked for three weeks. Focused on education and sustainable farming
Workaway: How I found Rock-Heim farms. A website to find lodging, and possible food, in exchange for work
WWOOF: The same basic concept of Workaway, but focused on small organic farms around the world.
Agriculture in the Classroom: An organization that works with national and state departments of agriculture, farm bureaus, and other farming related groups to promote agricultural literacy in K-12 education