Written by Richard Julian
In this new series of blog posts I am going to delve a little deeper into what it is like to volunteer here in Costa Rica with Abriendo Mentes. I hope to use my position as Communications Coordinator to get a unique perspective into working with Abriendo Mentes and find out what life is like volunteering with a small NGO in Guanacaste.
My first interview was with with Javiera Gutierrez Merino, who recently finished an eight month term as the Lead Youth English Teacher in Brasilito; Abriendo Mentes’ satellite program in a town just a few miles away from our headquarters in Potrero. Javiera, Javi to her friends, joined the Abriendo Mentes team in March 2013 and taught in Brasilito for two of our sessions (the year is divided into four 3 month sessions). AM has been working in Brasilto since March 2012, and while we have seen excellent progress over the past year, we still face many challenges helping this developing program grow and succeed. In this interview, Javi discusses some of these challenges.
When she started with Abriendo Mentes, Javi admits to being frustrated by the small numbers of students who regularly attended classes. She wrote a blog when she first arrived and she stated that her main goals for her time here were to connect with her students, to build their trust in her and to ultimately increase attendance levels. I started by asking her if she felt she had achieved these goals:
Javi: Absolutely, yes. I had to work hard at it but the kids have told me that they trust me, some of them even call me Mom from time to time by mistake! I still have to walk around the town before classes start to make sure students are coming to class and I have work hard to make every single class is fun but the attendance has increased tremendously since I started and I am proud of this.
Javi trained to be a teacher in Santiago, Chile, where she has returned to begin her career in the Chilean school system. I asked her what the differences are between teaching in a public school and with Abriendo Mentes.
Javi: Here there are fewer rules, it’s not as strict. The classes I give are extra-curricular and I am teaching kids that are at risk from the variety of social issues that Brasilito is affected by. They can walk out at any time so I have to work with them and we’ve found that kids are more likely to return and participate regularly if they know they have the freedom to leave if they want to. It is much more rigid in the school system, it is very clear what is expected from you and what you should teach; here I have learned to be extremely flexible. I knew I was flexible before coming here but here you have to be even more so, and learn how to not give up.
Despite facing several challenges, it is clear that Javi has enjoyed her time in Brasilito and that she loves the kids. I asked her what one piece of information she will pass on to her replacement Kira, who took over the reins in Brasilito at the beginning of session four.
Javi: Be patient and care. Once the children understand that you care, they start to work with you and appreciate that you are there for them. I have seen this from their drawings, when I first started teaching, all of their drawings were only of themselves, after a while they started to include their friends and the local areas such as parks and the playground, now they always include me and even the assistant teachers in their drawings! I feel like I’ve made a real connection with them.
As the Brasilito program continues to grow, I asked Javi what she saw for the future of this project.
Javi: I hope that volunteers will live there soon and we will have an office there so we can become based in the community and become more a part of it, like we are in Potrero, this is so important. I also hope that the classes include even more creative and fun projects, such as art and games, as this will ensure attendance remains high and has been our most successful teaching approach. I am really looking forward to see the Brasilito project continue growing and become as successful as we are in Potrero.
It is clear that Javi put a tremendous amount of work into her time with Abriendo Mentes, and was also able to learn a great deal at the same time. Many excellent volunteers have done great work in Brasilito over the past year and a half, and it will be fantastic to see all of this hard work pay off as new team members arrive and Brasilito continues to grow and thrive as a key program of Abriendo Mentes.