I researched heavily into volunteer groups worldwide, and chose GVI due to their partnership with “Save the Children”. They seemed like a trustworthy and legit organisation, so I didn’t mind parting with my money. People ask me why I chose Mexico, but, honestly, it chose me. Childcare Through the Arts. It sounded right up my street. Playing with children in a Ludoteca toy library? Learning and administering therapies in a special needs school? Yes, please! Would I do it again? Would I recommend it to a friend? Sadly, the answer to both of these is no.

Now don’t get me wrong, they are wonderful programs, but the cost was astronomical, especially given the subpar accommodation and food, combined with poor management. Half the night I lay awake sticky, listening to the fans blow warm air around, or congested snores from the others in the room. I was itchy, ill and covered in a lime & garlic juice marinade for the hundreds of mosquito bites I received due to a lack of screen doors. I compensated by avoiding the cloying, energy sapping heat (and atmosphere) of the volunteer house whenever I could, though was expected back for dinner/ cooking/ chores every evening. The rest of the time was spent lesson planning or sitting on a makeshift crates & mattress couch with other volunteers as we moaned and wondered about where the hell had our money gone?  “In the field” supposedly, yet why was I asked to go on a 42km cycle through the biosphere reserve in the heat to fundraise when I got there, and why were there boxes and boxes of donations coming in and left in storage? When was I going to get to start my art project? Where were the supplies I needed? Mostly I felt irrelevant, fobbed off and ripped off. There was a palpable negativity from some interns and volunteers that permeated the house.

Now I know that sounds incredibly spoiled and reeks of white privilege, but if you expect your volunteers to do a good days work (which they pay for) the least you can offer them is basic comfort, free time without a curfew, decent nourishing food and a chance to get a good night’s sleep.

If I could do it again, I would spend the money on renting an apartment and volunteer in the special needs escuelita in my own time. In fact, I more than likely will do that next summer. It will also give me a chance to explore more of that beautiful, enchanting country.

Anyways, about the escuelita. The Centro de Atenciòn Integral in Playa del Carmen is a very small school, in a rented house, created and run by two local women. The school receives little or no state funding. Edith and Lupita are mothers to two of the children in the school. Their strength; physically, mentally, emotionally is awe inspiring. Nati, a fiery Argentine teacher,  is passionate about her job and dedicated. She is also cool as a cucumber – organised, caring, effective and creates tailor made lessons for the children’s needs. Paty is the physiotherapist and alongside Lupita, she taught me many methods of sensory therapy/ massage. This is a powerhouse of strong women, which is amazing to see in a patriarchal society such a Mexico.

The centre is like a family. The love and care shines through. For the first hour or so I was at a loose end, over whelmed, not sure what to do around these children, afraid to touch them… I got over it quickly and any heartbreak or sympathy just turned to understanding, laughter and love as I got to know these wonderful pupils. Once a week, the gang experience maths/ language lessons through dog therapy, which is incredible – sweet, patient golden retrievers sitting there, tails wagging, with numbers pegged on their fur or Play Doh stuck on body parts… There is also aqua therapy at the local pool, a multisensory room in the centre and equine therapy at a ranch.

As I mentioned, part of the childcare projects at GVI is the opportunity to do Childcare Through the Arts. At the Ludoteca I often made posters and resources but when Edith approached me with a proposal to create an exhibition style fundraiser for the centre, I jumped at the chance! I loved the sensory therapy, and found the little escuelita to be a magical place, so was really excited to try art therapy. We decided that print would be the best medium to encourage the childrens’ mobility and motor skills. This also provided a lot of scope and freedom for my ideas. I submitted my proposal outlining my objectives and got the go ahead for wood block and wool printing plus sellotape resist art.

Unfortunately, the art therapy only took place in my last week (of six) and I was pressed for time. I whinged and the GVI staff eventually sourced canvas & tools, while the staff at the school tracked down wood to create frames. Myself and another GVI staff member put our carpentry skills to the test as we sawed, hammered and stapled canvases together. It was hard work, but fun in its own way as the manual labour was fulfilling. Though, at times, like a crazy trust exercise as one of us held tiny tacks and sticks in place while the other hammered. Luckily all fingers and thumbs remained intact.

Over two days, the children, staff and volunteers at the centre set to work printing various colourful patterns using the two chosen methods of print. Some children were physically aided, some adamant to do it ‘solita’ and worked really well at creating messy art and getting stuck in. It was incredible to witness the more capable and independent students really concentrating, patiently honing their fine motor skills and expressing themselves artistically. I was genuinely moved and shocked at what I has contributed. I could see the therapeutic side and it inspired me to look into studying an art therapy course down the line when I finish my travels.

Though incredibly stressful, I was proud of what we achieved in ba short space of time. It was worth it, and the finished pieces really were something special.

So even though I wouldn’t go with GVI again, and I probably would avoid “Save the Children” in future too. (Actually, I guess the bigger the organisation, the more bureaucratic, more departments, more impersonal…)  I did get a lot from my volunteering and I am glad I did it. It is a little bittersweet and cliche to say I think I got more out of it then the people I was helping, but I think that’s true.

Done some volunteer work or thinking about it? Would love to hear your experiences below!

Cat

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