Volunteering in Colombia: can you make a difference in two weeks?

As most of you know, Husband recently spent two weeks in Colombia on a volunteering programme. It was such an interesting experience I thought I’d bully ask him to write about it. Please make him feel welcome (although not too welcome, don’t want him being more popular than me – obviously). Over to you Husband, sorry, Mike:

So, here’s the deal with Telefonica, the company I work for: you give up two weeks of your holiday allowance and they fly you off to somewhere in South or Central America, paying your flight and accommodation where you’ll join a local community or school, teaching skills and games to kids from areas of severe poverty. The ‘volunteering vacation’ is part of an ongoing programme from Telefonica, which provides financial and practical support to children and the wider community in Latin America, with the aim of preventing child labour.

Volunteering is an opportunity to contribute something positive into people’s lives who have few of the comforts of cosy middle-class western existence and precious few of the opportunities we have (assuming, like me, you fit into this category).

When you sign up to the scheme you don’t know exactly where you’ll be going, what you’ll be doing, who you’ll be working with or where you’ll be sleeping. Although gradually this will be become clearer (though not clear) as you approach the departure date. You soon realise you’re going to have to adopt a ‘roll with it’ attitude (an attitude you need even more when you get there).

To get accepted into this year’s scheme I had to go through an application process, saying what I had to offer. When the form asked for skills in dance, music, singing or poetry, I was slightly uncomfortable. Or should I say scared. Let’s just say I’m more at home with numbers than creative stuff. But despite this, I must have done a good job of the application, because I got accepted for a two-week project in Colombia, along with nine other employees from around the world – Spain, Nicaragua, Panama, Venezuela, Argentina and Germany.

Panic about my poor level of Spanish set in immediately. Next, panic about not having experience with children. And finally, panic about what kind of accommodation arrangements there would be. I’m okay with very basic accommodation. I’m not OKAY with dirty. And I’m not really that good with room sharing. I was afraid to ask the organisers any questions about the accommodation before committing myself – it kinda felt inappropriate and not in the spirit of the scheme! So I said nothing and hoped for the best.

A Facebook page was set up for the ten of us and we chatted away in Spanish – and Spanglish! – getting to know each other and making preparations. Our project was to take place in the small city of Sincelejo in Northern Colombia, working at a school in the poorest area of an extremely poor city. We had a first aid room to renovate and furnish, and a series of workshops to deliver on self-care, nutrition, health etc. There were also English classes to help with, which as the only English group member, fell to me to take the lead on.

So the day comes when we are due to start. We all rendezvous in Bogota to start with, then fly north to Sincelejo where we are met at the airport by a singing, dancing local folk music band, which had been specially arranged for us. It was to be the first of many dancing, singing experiences. For a non-singing, non-dancing, non-happy-clappy 42-year-old male it really was a worrying start. (I should have known those questions were on the application form for a reason.)

Bienvenido! Welcome! Folk band at the airport

We climb onboard our bus, together with the band (still singing and clapping) and head to our hotel (basic but clean) where things take a turn for worst when I find out that I’m sharing a very small room with two of my companeros – companions – for the two weeks. I draw the short straw for the shittiest bed by the bathroom. I’m depressed. Nevermind, I tell myself. I’m doing this for the kids; it’s not about me!

We unpack and then all meet up for a briefing meeting with the local charity who effectively are our hosts for the two weeks. They lay out the social activity for every one of the 14 nights that we are in Sincelejo. I will have no control of my time. I know it’s well intended, and everyone is so welcoming, but my heart sinks a little; I’m not very good at being ‘owned’ (ask Karen).

Once we get into the work itself I start to find my groove and thoroughly enjoy it. The children, the parents and the teachers embrace us with love, warmth and friendship. I’m made to feel wanted and appreciated and that I’m doing something real and worthwhile – feelings not always there in my daily corporate life. Doing up the first aid room with my companeros was a great team building exercise and we all mucked in. And I thoroughly enjoyed working with the kids in the English classes – the teacher even left the class to me on one occasion: trusted with educating a classroom of children on my own. Me! Ha! Getting to know the children was really rewarding. They were shy to start with but they were also very curious about us. Colombians – boys and girls – are football mad so it was easy to get them talking about English football clubs.

The Telefonica Volunteers

First aid room painting – looks good eh?!

The school held its annual English spelling contest whilst we were there. It’s a very serious affair involving the whole school of 1,000 pupils. I was head judge and sat on a panel deciding the fate of the many spelling hopefuls. It was a tough job: watching a seven-year old’s screwed up face under the strain of trying to spell Xylophone.

Spelling contest judging panel

So I enjoyed the actual volunteering work, the real purpose of us being there. As to the room sharing and the social marathon – well, I’m glad I didn’t know about it before I went. But once you are there, the only option is to embrace it and ‘roll with it’. Colombian dance class followed by late night dinner after a 12 hour day? Yep, I’d love to. Room mate wants to wash all his pants at one in the morning? Yep, no problem, knock yourself out mate. Get up at 6 am on a Saturday after four hours sleep and travel to the coast in a cramped hot bus? Sure, sounds amazing. You get the picture.

Like being in a Doritos’ advert

My final day at the end of the two weeks was full of all kinds of emotions. There were so many kind words of thanks and gratitude said to us during a ‘closing ceremony’ attended by teachers, children and charity workers. I was in tears. When individual kids hugged me and slipped me notes with words such as ‘thankyou for a beautiful friendship’ I couldn’t help but be emotional. And it did feel like we had made a difference to the kids in the time we had been there.

I’m so glad I did this: it was a unique experience to join a loving, beautiful community, that could definitely teach us something about being happy with very little – and I do feel privileged to have had this opportunity.

Still like my own space though.

Space AND beer. Happy.

9 thoughts on “Volunteering in Colombia: can you make a difference in two weeks?

  1. Thank you for sharing Mike, sounds like an excellent opportunity that more companies should participate in. You have made memories for those kids they will keep for the rest of their lives no matter what the world throws at them. A big well done 🙂 x

  2. It is really inspiring that some companies value volunteering like this. You definitely have to roll with it in regards to organized or not so organized travel too. Sleep is never a guarantee.

    • Hi Suzy

      Thank you for coming by. I’m being a good wife and replying on Husband’s behalf as he’s away – again (but not quite as far, this time!).

      I agree, it’s so impressive when companies have these great community programmes – and a great opportunity for Husband too!


  3. That is a fabulous opportunity that your employer offered. I can understand your reservations and wanting of space, privacy and home comforts. Once settled in though you adjusted well and it was as a fulfilling experience for you as for the kids.

    It is a great story, thanks for sharing.

    • Hey ‘The Guy’!

      Husband hasn’t had a chance to reply, so as a good wife, I’m stepping in.

      I know I would have found the room sharing challenging! But as you say, overall, it was a fabulous experience – and I think the pictures of the smiling kids show this beautifully…


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