My name is Ksenia, I’m 18 years old and I am a long-term volunteer at VE Global. Last September I packed my bags and made the 7000 mile trip from Leicester in the UK to Santiago de Chile.
On arrival I was trained by VE before starting work at a ‘Residencia de Protección para Madres Adolescentes’ (a care residence for teenage mothers). There are 7 of these ´Hogares´ in Chile and only one in Santiago. In my interviews for VE I expressed an interest in the Residencia because I believed that learning about the realities faced by young women of nearly my own age would be an immense learning curve.
Was it an immense learning curve?
Was I prepared for what I was about to embark on?
No, is the short answer.
To give you an idea of how my first day went I dug out a letter I wrote but never sent to a friend in the UK. It´s dated Saturday, 10th September 2016, and it goes like this:
My dearest Gabriella,
I do hope you’re well. I´ve been away for a week now and I think I must have enough stories to fill a small novel but I´ll try to pick the best ones to put in this letter.
On Wednesday I had my first day. Long story long is that the Residencia (teen mum’s home) is really intense, and I was low-key terrified the whole time.There are in total 13 girls all with babies. Actually, I tell a lie, two of them ran away (one of them 8 months pregnant, and the other one taking her baby with her), it was the talk of the town when we arrived. The other girls kept saying they were ´tontas´ (stupid) because when they’re found they’ll be separated from their babies. The system is cruel here.
After a while we started making dreamcatchers with two of the mothers. They didn’t believe I was so young, they kept asking me ´¿tienes hijos?´(do you have kids?). I sort of choked back a laugh and said no, but then I felt dumb.
One girl started making a collage out of photographs with a hot glue gun and a wooden board. When asked where she was going to put it she replied on her friend’s grave. He died in prison and no one’s sure how.
My partner asked her what other activities took place in the room we were using as an arts and crafts workshop. It was a nice room, like an old italian convent, big windows, lots of light, a garden view…
”Fucking.” She replied.
“There aren’t even any curtains,”
“They had to take them down to wash the semen off them”.´
As time went on I began to gain an understanding of their behaviors and now even more so looking back. Many of the girls were suffering from the effects of sexual abuse, domestic violence, drug addiction and extreme poverty. I gradually became more accustomed to the girls’ ways of communicating, and as the four months I spent there progressed, so did my ability to achieve small goals. What started with a fascination with dream catchers became an interest in mandalas, then a photography crash course and finally an interest in interior design. There were lemon pies and pancakes, christmas biscuits and pizzas, which, with with some cohersion, led to email accounts, online recipes and the ability to draw up a budget shopping list; prices and amounts included. My partner, who’s Spanish was leagues beyond mine, inspired a passionate young woman to perform a monologue, discussions about Trump’s presidency, and an atmosphere that emphasised the importance of education and communication.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing, in fact most of the time it was the opposite. We were constantly working against a tide of uncontrollable circumstances. The girls were often on medication, some were suffering from mental illness, and besides that, it often felt absurd to even try to fit an origami workshop into the schedule of a single, teenage mum. At times the staff at the home seemed to be thinking exactly that, and they would frequently pop their heads around the door to tell a girl that she needed to put her laundry on, or mop, or go for a checkup at the GP. At one point, a few weeks after I began working there, a very confused staff member refused to let me leave the residency as she was almost certain that I was a lying teenage mother trying to make a break for it. After that she nicknamed me “La Tia Niña” (in essence: the child who works as a staff member).
Due to uncontrollable circumstances I stopped working at the residency. I spent 3 months working as an intern in VE Global’s Santiago based office. Here I learned a lot about the inner workings of the organisation. I learned that the programs and events we offer have long lasting, positive effects on the children that are able to take advantage of them. A defining moment for me was when a new volunteer class began working at a home in which we’d never before placed volunteers. A child approached the new volunteer on their first day, pointed at the VE Global logo on their bag and said with genuine pleasure “I know them, they used to do workshops at my last home”.
With a renewed perspective, at the end of March I began working at an after school club which functions as a Child Protection Service. It’s difficult to draw comparisons between the two child protection facilities I’ve worked at in Santiago because they are both dealing with very different problems. Whilst the mum’s residency had to accommodate the needs of young women who had been through the ordeal of childbirth against a backdrop socio-economic problems, the club works to reverse the effects of some of the same socio-economic problems, but with a focus on each child’s personal growth. The personal backgrounds of the mums who lived at the residency were often so traumatic, I found that the only clear objective was to attain some kind of stability amongst the turbulence of court tribunals, hospital appointments and missed classes. At the club, stability is within the capability of the dedicated staff and collaborating parents.
I have been ceaselessly impressed by the staff’s rigorous approach to homework and curriculum reinforcement at the Club. The commitment to providing an example of a healthy lifestyle can be seen from the food that’s set on the table, right through to the weekly Zumba classes.
Again, this is no easy task.
Taking responsibility for not only the basic needs but the cultural and social education of 45 children, with minimal government funding and only four paid staff might seem crazy, but in this instance it works. In this atmosphere, growth thrives. The technical staff are continuously struggling for money to pay wages and fretting about the next food donation, yet they still manage to provide workshops for children of all ages, with a range of different capabilities. In my two months here I’ve seen cooking, sewing, sports, music and English. Volunteers are invited from all over the world, and the children’s curiosity about who you are and what it’s like where you come from never seems to falter. I will never again be surprised to hear a child ask,’how do you say Dragon Master in french?’.
Reflecting back, my time here in Santiago has been brimming with life. In a short amount of time I feel as if I’ve learned more about the world than in my previous 18 years of existence put together. But then again, that’s just a reminder of how little I know.