photography, travel photography

Bolivia Solidarity Tour #03 - Service Projects

This story is a continuation from posts #01 and #02 of my South American adventure. If you haven't already read them, please feel free!

Each day members of our group were assigned to a variety of service projects in and around the community. I specifically signed up for as many different activities as I could so I'd be able to document as much as possible with my camera, but because of the nature of our visit and the amazing people who wanted to share their experiences with us, I really missed out on a lot!

A large part of our group's fundraising efforts have been directed towards two build projects for 7 families in the Yapacaní area. (P.S. We still haven't reached our goal - Click here to make a donation!) On the first day of service projects I was lucky enough to be on the bus that went to visit two of the families at their build sites.

First we visited the future home of Jorge & Lourdes and their 6 children. Currently the family is renting a two-room place in the town of Yapacaní and are under constant threat of eviction. The income that Jorge makes is only enough to feed his familiy and pay the rent. After saving for a long time, the family was able to purchase a plot of land in the Jardin del Amboro neighborhood of Yapacaní, but were subsequently unable to afford the building supplies necessary to begin construction. Thanks to Chalice, the foundation of the new home was well underway on that day, and additional building supplies were forthcoming. The family was overjoyed by our visit, gave us small gifts and refreshments, and Lourdes cried as she thanked us for our fundraising efforts. I was beyond moved.


The next family we visted were the ones that I personally helped with their build project a few days later. Tomas and Bertha have 7 children, and currently live in a wooden one-room house and open air thatched roof kitchen on a plot of land that they have owned for 17 years. Bertha has recently been diagnosed with cervical cancer and is receiving treatment at a nearby hospital that helps the less fortunate. The family of nine desperately needs a hygenic, functional bathroom, and when Chalice stepped in to help that was all they asked for. Tomas works as a construction worker, so with his expertise the construction of the new brick house was well underway by the time we arrived. We would return a few days later to visit again, but also be a part of the build project.


The next day I had the pleasure of participating in an afternoon of sports and games with any neighborhood children that wanted to drop into the multipurpose space connected to Yapacaní's church. We taught them how to play freeze tag and dodgeball, and with a suitcase full of games & toys from Canada, set up some relay races, hopscotch and jump-rope. Some ladies in our group had also brought tons of donated soccer & basketballs which did not go unnoticed by the local children - I saw them being enjoyed all week!


Throughout the week, my mother and another woman from Airdrie, AB were teaching local women how to crochet durable and waterproof sleeping mats, bags and hats out of plastic bags. Many people in Yapacaní make their living through cottage-industry-type manufacturing, and the more unique the item the more likely it will do well in the local economy. Being introduced to this technique, limited only by their imaginations and utilizing a waste product was a huge hit, and by the end of the week the workshops were packed with women eager to share their new ideas. Some had even begun manufacturing their own crochet hooks from scrap metal and wood, creating a whole new source of income.


Another workshop that was ongoing all week was an English class for local teenagers. A few of the members of our group are teachers, so it was only natural for them to use their skills and resources in this manner. A retired teacher from Ontario had also brought along worksheets and activities to facilitate the classes. I popped in for an hour one afternoon to snap some photos of the class while the kids were learning to discuss food, and they seemed to be enjoying themselves.


As I mentioned earlier, I had the pleasure of returning to visit Tomas and Bertha a few days later to be part of the actual build of their new home. Tomas wanted to be able to say that he built his family's home with his own two hands, so we ended up doing a lot of the grunt work. The two eldest children were off at school that day, but Santiago, Tomas Jr, Sebastian, Meilton and little two-year-old Velguis Mayte were all at the house pitching in. Amid spurts of rain and swarms of mosquitoes we moved bricks, shoveled sand, and played with the children. Santiago, who is 12 years old and such a little charmer, was giving Spanish lessons by having us repeat simple phrases and count with him. I helped to fix the one bicycle that the kids all share, and at one point a neighbour boy came by with his pet monkey! Santiago, not about to be upstaged by his neighbour, showed us his pet "monkey" - a little grey kitten that clung to his shirt. I had such an amazing time with the family that day, and when it was time to leave it was very difficult to say goodbye.


On our second last day in Yapacaní, I wasn't feeling very well. The heat and humidity had finally caught up to me and I ended up going back to the hotel in the afternoon to rest, along with a few others who were feeling under the weather. Before leaving Yapacaní though, I tagged along to the Technical Institute where my mother and a few others were giving haircuts to the local women and swapping techniques with the local cosmetology students. From there, we got on the bus and went to have lunch at a soup kitchen for seniors that Chalice helped to fund as one of the many community projects. There are a lot of homeless seniors in Yapacaní, as many families don't have the means to support their elderly, and this soup kitchen is a place where they can get out of the rain, socialize together and get a hot meal. One of the people traveling with us was CBC reporter Jerry West, and it happened to be his birthday so a local woman had baked a cake in celebration, which Jerry's face was promptly shoved into after lunch. We had a good laugh with the local seniors, and one of them got up at the front of the room and sang us a song and thanked us for the donations which made the soup kitchen possible. Again, it was very hard to say goodbye.


Our last day in Yapacaní was short, as we were leaving for La Paz that evening. Father Arturo had prepared a special mass for us at the church in Spanish, English and Italian which was a pretty neat thing to experience. Everyone was welcome at the mass, even stray dogs! At the end they asked all of the Canadian ambassadors to come up to the front of the church, and the locals all came up to thank us one last time, hug and kiss us and give us presents. I felt pretty bad taking the gifts, as most of the handcrafted items they gave us are sources of income for the families, but they insisted we have them as tokens of their gratitude.


My time in Yapacaní was incredible, and I will never forget it for the rest of my life. I don't have words to describe it (although this long blog post may indicate otherwise). I only hope that I've been able to give you a glimpse into what we experienced as a group, and possibly persuade you to donate to the housing projects.

That night we boarded a plane to La Paz to visit Chalice's sponsor site there known as Guadaloupe. That is exactly what my next post will cover, so check back soon for the ongoing story of my journey!