At Soul Action we’re passionate about seeing you guys being equipped, sent out and then cheering you on all the way, wherever you end up. To give you a flavour of what going overseas is like we’re starting a series of interviews with some people who’ve experienced life on the front line firsthand.
We caught up with Laura, who spent some time in Bolivia last summer working as a team leader in the city of Cochabamba, to see how she got on…
Just a few random questions to get going!
What’s your favourite ice-cream flavour?
Oh pralines and cream, every time.
If you could have any superpower what would it be?
Omnilinguism, the ability to understand all languages. You could travel around the world and never have to worry about a language barrier, plus I’d have aced every language class in school!
Would you rather live somewhere where it was always snowy or always sunny?
And now about your placement…
What organisation were you working with and what’s their vision?
I was sent out by Tearfund who have teamed up with International Citizens’ Service, both of whom have a heart to provide the opportunity for young adults to volunteer at one of three different organisations based in Rwanda, Burundi or Bolivia.
Tearfund’s huge but incredible vision is to see 50 million people released from material and spiritual poverty through a worldwide network of 100,000 local churches.
Why did you decide to apply for the Tearfund/ICS placement?
Ever since I can remember, I have felt very overwhelmed by the amount of poverty and injustice in our world. Out of this came a desire to really understand what the reality of poverty is for so many people in the third world and developing countries. In May 2012 I discovered that Tearfund had teamed up with the International Citizens’ Service, to provide opportunities for young adults to volunteer. So I jumped at the chance to apply and to my surprise I was offered a place as the team leader for the placement to Cochabamba, a city in the centre of Bolivia surrounded by the stunning Andes Mountains.
What sort of work were you getting involved in?
The team and I worked with a local organisation called Mosaj Yan (New Road in Bolivian Spanish) who care for and support many of the children and young adults living on the streets. Mosoj Yan has three centres: a Centre for the Working Children being open to the youngest living on the streets. The children could come for a meal, have educational classes and to just play in the garden. The Motivational Centre for young adults is a place where they can hangout with each other, have a shower, have a meal and also learn a craft (cooking, gardening etc). Finally the Restoration Home, home to twelve girls aged nine to nineteen who have suffered by being abused sexually by someone close to them.
What contribution did you make at the centres?
We would often help with the educational classes at each of the centres, which were always varied. The children and young people were taught practically; how to cook/bake, to grow vegetables and to have healthy relationships. We’d also often play games in the garden, make crafts and just generally have a whole lot of fun together. Most importantly we were there to serve and to build relationships with the children, young people and with the educators who worked at Mosoj Yan.
What was the best thing about your time away?
Aside from being able to learn and be a part of all the incredible work Mosoj Yan continue to do in support of the young people and children, there was something else which totally overwhelmed me. On our first Saturday in Cochabamba, we stumbled across an incredible project set up in one of the main squares in the centre of the city. The aim of this project is simple, to provide the opportunity for any mum/dad/older sibling without access to running water to bring their babies/children/young -siblings to the tent, set up for the protection of the children, in the middle of the square for a bath and a new set of clothes. The offer is also open for anyone else of any age who doesn’t have access to running water to come and have their hair washed too. HOW amazing is that?!
When we first discovered the tent in the square I was overwhelmed at just the sight of these women, men and children desperately clambering and queuing up for the opportunity to have access to water, to simply wash their babies. Some of these people live in the city, but some will have traveled miles for the opportunity to wash their young ones. I was also struck by the sight of the same women, men and children who after washing the babies, would then have their own hair washed. This would happen outside the tent, in the open, for all to see. Very humbling. Incredibly heartbreaking. It was a sight which often brought me to tears. How can this be fair? Surely we should all have our basic needs met? Access to running water, basic food and a basic education.
When we arrived at the square we were welcomed by the people who run the ‘baby washing’ project and were asked if we wanted to help wash the hair of the adults and the children. Of course our team jumped at the opportunity to help out and we went back every Saturday while we were in Cochabamba. The simplest of actions on our part meant that those who came to the ‘baby washing’ would feel loved and would leave feeling a sense of worth of value and of hope. The overwhelming impact the ‘baby washing’ had on me that first Saturday continued to draw me back to the square each Saturday, and will most definitely continue to impact me for many many years to come.
What was the hardest thing about your time away?
Cochabamba has a huge community of people who have been born into absolute poverty, sadly meaning there are thousands upon thousands in Cochabamba who have never had access or the ability to meet their basic needs. Seeing this everywhere in the city just broke my heart, over and over again and it was emotionally draining and meant we as a team were often very tired and sometimes feeling a sense of utter helplessness. Having said that, this was so necessary for God to really speak to each of us about His heart for these people who have nothing, not even hope.
What surprised you the most on your placement?
The amount of carbs you can have on one plate…! In Bolivia they have potato’s, with pasta and often with rice too! Needless to say, I put on about a stone.
What affect has your experience had on you since returning home?
I have always had a burdened heart for those people who are less fortunate than myself, who live in absolute poverty and who don’t have a voice. Particularly those who are vulnerable to abuse, especially those who are vulnerable to being trafficked and sold. Since being back home in my leafy, clean suburban town, having seen the impact that opportunity for change gives, I have been inspired to actively look for more opportunities to serve those who really need it. I feel challenged to use my skills and passions to do what I can and surprise surprise, It doesn’t matter that I can’t run 100 marathons in 100 days (although props to you if you can)! I’m also very passionate about music, so I’ve decided to invest in combining the two, so maybe raising money through music and art events for particular organisations?
As time passes, I am still learning exactly what this unforgettable experience really meant to me, one particular question does continually spring to mind ‘how can we practically help and more importantly support and encourage those who really need it’? Of course, money is always a help to organisations and charities and it’s also really fun to get involved with campaigning (I’ve recently got the brilliant Nudge app). But it’s so valued when we start actively searching out and giving practical help (have a look at the Rhythms app too). There are so so many opportunities for us to help in big and small ways, we just need to make sure we don’t miss out on them.
What advice would you give to anyone who is considering going abroad to volunteer?
What are you waiting for??? Go! (You won’t regret it)
How in particular can we pray for Cochabamba?
It’d be amazing if you could pray for Bolivian government and the police force, both are very corrupted and often sadly use their power for selfish reasons. Also please pray for the amazing work that Mosoj Yan consistently carry out and of course for the baby washing, that more and more of the street community continue to hear about it. Finally for the Christian Spanish school – Connexions, who taught us and continue to teach other Christian volunteers all the Bolivian Spanish they need to converse with the locals.
One of many testimonies from Mosoj Yan:
There were so many positive stories we heard from the directors at Mosoj Yan and people we met throughout our time in Cochabamba about the amazing impact Mosoj Yan is having on so many lives. In particular, Ariel’s testimony stands out to me. After 16 years living on the streets, with the determination of both himself and those who work at Mosoj Yan, Ariel was able to go through the tough rehabilitation process, stop sniffing glue, Give his life to Jesus, find a job, find a wife and have two children! It was incredibly inspiring to meet Ariel and his family, to hear what a difference the encouragement and support given could make to their lives. Simply through having an education, being offered the opportunity to build healthy relationships and in turn creating a new life and a real sense of hope for themselves and the community they are a part of.