Volunteer Spotlight: Erika

Erika volunteered at Globalteer’s Peru Children’s Project at Picaflor House near Cusco for two weeks in 2011. In her early twenties, Erika lives in Texas but is originally from Peru, so had an idea of what to expect from her trip.

Her ambition is to work full time with children in the future so she saw volunteering as a great way to get started. But it was Erika’s father who discovered the Globalteer website on the internet, and as soon as she read about Picaflor she “knew this was the kind of experience I was looking for”.

A short bout of altitude sickness - soon cured with liberal servings of coca tea - and the chilly mountain mornings did not faze Erika who really appreciated the friendly staff and the hot showers at the volunteer accommodation.

Getting down to work

Once in the classroom Erika soon worked out ways to deal with some of the situations that volunteering in a developing country can throw at you.

“Usually what I had to do every day was to encourage the children to read different stories and get them to talk to me about them. Let’s just say there were some kids who were more willing than others. ..One day I noticed that one of the kids would get done with his reading a lot quicker than the rest of the group and he would then proceed to start chatting away to kill time. At first I tried assigning him more reading, but by the time everyone else had finished reading he wouldn’t have enough time to tell me about his stories.

"Toward the end of my stay at Picaflor I finally figured out how I could make it all work. I created a system where each kid had to stop by a table once they were done reading to talk to me about their story, and if one of them got done earlier than the others they would have to go and pick up another book.

"I also assigned a big book to the kid who was a fast reader. The book was about dinosaurs. I figured that he would continue on distracting the other students if I let him sit with them on the floor and therefore that day I made him sit with me at the table with his book about dinosaurs and told him to tell me about everything the book taught him. He did just that. He compared the different kinds of dinosaurs there were, thoroughly enthralled by all the details in the book, and once I got him started there was no stopping him. I’ve never been a big fan of dinosaurs, but I just had tons of fun sitting there listening to him.”

Rewards and challenges

For Erika the best part was just talking with the children, although she found trying to help resolve their arguments could be a bit of a challenge.

“The part I loved the most about it all was my conversations with the children. My favourite conversation with them was when they told me that I should quit learning all the languages I know and just focus in on Quechua (the indigenous Peruvian language). They even tried to teach me some useful phrases!

"There were challenges too. I’ve always been a bit of an impatient person and there were some days when the kids had arguments I had to help them resolve. It was a big adjustment for sure, trying to think of ways to teach them how to always respect one another. I think that during moments like those all I really needed was just more experience working with children. So I tried to think of what worked with me when I was a child or even what worked with my brother (who was a bit of a difficult case anyway), but with time I started figuring out what worked and what didn’t.”

Although most volunteers only start to learn Spanish when they get to Peru, being able to speak Spanish to the children helped Erika to settle in to her role quickly, and her language skills were a useful addition to the volunteer team’s skill set.

“At first I wasn’t sure how to handle so many children at once, but with time I figured out that these children didn’t have a lot of opportunities to bond with the volunteers in Spanish. So I took that as my chance to be the one volunteer they could really relate to. We joked around and some of them felt more at ease around me than others. Given that I know the culture pretty well, I think that the one thing I was able to do fairly well was to make everything relatable to them, because I did feel that was one thing they were missing...I tried to explain them things in their own words, with concepts they would understand.”

Future plans

Erika would love to return to Picaflor House, and is even thinking about going to Globalteer’s Cambodia children’s project. Whatever she does next, she is keen to do another volunteer trip just as soon as she can, as she explains,

“I was happy with my experience, but I was sad to leave it all behind. Two weeks felt too short - Those two weeks I spent volunteering in Peru were the happiest of my life.”