My last article about volunteering with the Aldea Yanapy school project brought up some controversy with the organization itself, and had to be edited quite a bit. I’m going to try and keep this one less controversial, but I still pledge honesty. And sorry, no pictures this time. This project did not allow photographs.
For one week of my time while volunteering with the Cusco organization Aldea Yanapay, I was working with the commissary project. Though the school’s primary mission, and the vast majority of its volunteers are working with the school, the commissary was started later in Yuri (the director’s) career. The project is only open to people who have a good grasp on the Spanish language, which is why I had to wait a few weeks for my Spanish to improve before I could work there. At any given time it there are about 6 volunteers working in two groups (a morning and then evening group) 6 days a week.
The project itself takes place in a s, which seemed to me to be a police station for domestic crimes. The building itself was in a bit of a dicier part of town, about a 20 minute walk from the school. I worked the morning shift, and would meet up with my team around 9am. We’d walk over together, quietly chatting. Walking there often felt like calm before the storm, because with this project you could never quite be sure what you would expect.
Though the commissary was a place for families to come who were victems of domestic violence or crimes, there was also a holding room there. This was the room where we worked. It was on the second floor, a locked door with hanging pictures and colorings drawn by children hanging on the outside. As we would approach the door, little eyes and fingers would poke through the hole below the doorknob to examine us. Eventually the “tech”, a guard assigned to help us that day, would open the door and our day would begin.
Inside the room were children ranging in age from about 7 to 17 or 18. I had heard from other volunteers that sometimes there were only 4 or 5 children there, and other days there were up to 40. The entire week I worked there was a pretty regular group of 15 or 20 kids. There were three types of kids who were being held there. Some were kids who had been convicted or accused of crimes, mostly burglary, drug charges or prostitution. Others were kids that had been abandoned. One of the other volunteers told me there was one little girl there before I got there who had been dropped off by her mother, who was going on vacation. The rest of the kids were street kids who had been picked up by the police, or else had run away from home and either refused to give out or did not know the address of their parents. All of these kids were kept together in one room, circled by ramshackle bunk beds with one window with bars on it. There was a separate room with less bunk beds where the girls slept at night, but during the day all of the kids were kept in one room.
There was some debate among the volunteers as to whether or not this place could be referred to as a prison. It was not an official prison, and both the director of the program, Yuri, and the guards at the location called it as “la comisería”. But the children were not permitted to leave, had to do some menial work such as sweeping and laundry. So I will leave it up to you to decide. However, the circumstances inside the room were dire. There were a few chairs, many of which were broken or crumbling, two tables, and a small closet where Yuri had stocked some art supplies. The volunteers had a key to this room, and we were also able to lock our personal items in there since there were some cases of theft with previous volunteers.
When we arrived, just like at the school, many of the younger kids would run up to us and hug and kiss us. Though the kids were labeled “trouble makers”, I found them to be just as polite and kinda (perhaps even kinder) than some of the kids at the Aldea Yanapay school. Though I must admit, they could be sneaky, like all kids. The reason more Spanish is required to work at the commissary is because the kids can be somewhat manipulative, though I never really experienced that.
Before the week began, during Yuri’s weekly meetings, the team I was working with got together to plan out some activities to do during that week. Without the volunteers, the kids at the commissary wouldn’t have much to do. There was a checkers-board and some broken markers and scraps of paper, but this is not enough to keep 15 sometimes wily kids busy. So we planned out to have them do origami, make masks for carnival, etc. The kids obviously had done stuff like this before, and some of them complained, but by the time we got into it most of the children there wanted to join in the activities.
I liked working in the mornings because three days a week we got to go to “patio”. This was the kids only opportunity to go outside. After arriving in the morning we would line up, taking 2 basketballs, a jump rope and a soccer ball. The kids would all hold on to a rope, and then would be led outside by the “tech” to the patio, a large, walled in concrete soccer/basketball court. It wasn’t much, but even concrete and sky seems like a lot when you spend most of your life inside.
Outside we would play games, and some of the kids would just run around in circles, happy to have more space in which to operate. These days were joyous and heartbreaking at once, because after only 3 hours, we would have to move back inside.
Anyway, that was how it worked for a week. I’m not going to offer much opinion on the program, except to say that if you find yourself in Cusco and have good Spanish skills, I recommend it. It was true volunteering, helping out children who are in real need of contact, love and support. You will feel rewarded.