I've been avoiding writing about my work in the favelas because there's so much to say. I'm sure people are expecting me to say things like:
It was a rewarding experience to be able to help a community.
I feel good about myself knowing that I helped others.
I now have a greater appreciation for what I have.
Yes, all of that is true. But there's more.
Here is my complete and honest opinion about the work that I did: volunteering at Escola Aberta has been both an amazing and frustrating experience for me.
The best part for me was definitely working with the children. They are always so happy, full of smiles, and ridiculously energetic – jumping on our backs and demanding piggy back rides all the time. During our time here, we accompanied the children on a parade to raise community awareness about the environment and organized a party to celebrate São João, a local "country" holiday. There was lots of food, music, dancing, and children dressed as farmers. It was adorable. During the party, we were also able to give the students the backpacks, and guess what? We raised enough to give everyone a new backpack for the next 2 years!
My second favorite part about volunteering was accomplishing our goal of building a new cafeteria. The reason that we had the parade was to raise environmental awareness and, most importantly, to persuade people to stop throwing trash outside of the cafeteria's window. The situation was horrible. There was a foul smell – the children was still using the cafeteria at this time – and dirty water was seeping through the walls. The cafeteria was cave-like with dim lightbulbs, walls with peeling paint, and dust everywhere. It was a bagunça quente – a hot mess.
To help with the cafeteria renovation, we did what we could to help the repairman in charge. We tiled (I can now add amateur wall-tiling to my resume), scraped paint off walls with shovels/pick-axes/etc., re-painted the walls, cleaned the floor, and decorated the place with artworks at the end. The cafeteria is now unrecognizable. I'm so glad that we finished before we left.
Interacting with the children and seeing the finished cafeteria were my most enjoyable experiences from the volunteer project. However, the situation of "service learning" as a whole could have been better. Honestly, I don't think going to the school 8 times made a difference in the lives of the students. It's paradoxical because service learning ended up taking up a lot of our time and energy, yet I still felt like we did relatively little. One of the reasons for this, I believed, was due to the poor communication and planning between the 2 parties involved: us and the school. I know it's "Brazil," and things never go as plan... but I feel like we could have helped to the best of our abilities if we came to Escola Aberta each day knowing what we were going to do. We didn't even start the cafeteria until 2 weeks before our departure date.
The little bureaucratic disputes, although they did dampen my experience somewhat, were not what frustrated me the most. I think hardest thing for me was to accept the fact that there is no tangible solution for improving the situation at Escola Aberta. There's no quick fix solution for lifting those children out of poverty. The fact that the school exists in the first place – through the hard work of a dedicated few and no funding from the government – is beyond impressive. There's so much that's already been done. However, there's more that needs to be done and absolutely no system in place to do it.
I know that when I leave here, the reality for the children, the teachers, and the community will have changed little. But, hopefully, my interactions with the kids will have made something click inside of them – something that will motivate them to travel and see the world or even to study English… to simply know that there is more out there than their immediate reality. Someone wise once told me that inspiring a person doesn't necessarily mean flipping their life upside-down. It could just be that maybe something small you said stuck with that person, and maybe that "little something" will nudge a person's life trajectory a bit off-course. And maybe – just maybe – those few degrees can make a huge difference in the long run. If I could do that for just one child, nudge his or her life in a more positive direction, I would be happy.
Out of my students at Escola Aberta, there is one little girl that sticks out to me. Her name is Emily. She's beautiful, smart, shy, and rarely smiles. We had a closing ceremony for the service learning projects at ACBEU, and Emily was invited on my behalf. I think that night was the first time I saw Emily truly smile – really smiling from ear to ear. We had a cocktail party after the ceremony where the kids got treated like adults: sodas in wine glasses and fancy snacks delivered on trays. I think it was good for her to be in a new environment. I wrote Emily a little letter, and I included my favorite seashell – one that I found at Morro de São Paulo. I hope that letter will be the "little something" that reminds her of the bigger world that's out there. Hopefully, that letter will be the few degrees that makes a difference.
For now, I'll accept the fact that I can't do much to alleviate the problems Escola Aberta. For now.
But one day soon, I'm going to find a sustainable way to help the school and the wonderful children there. Promise.