Let's Go VolunteerA Typical Day by Ashley (Australia), 2014

I have been asked to write about a typical day volunteering with Let's Go Volunteer. I said I would be happy to and then joked that as soon as I had one I would get right to work. I have been here in Ibagué for three weeks and I have another three weeks to go. I came here after finding the web site when looking at how I could escape the worst of winter. I was clear that I wanted to be in a Spanish speaking country, volunteering and not just going from one tourist attraction to another. I couldn't be happier with my choice.

My day begins at 8am. When I come down from my room, the morning session is already in full swing. There are children, colored paper and glue everywhere but they look like they are having fun. It is Tuesday, and yesterday it was me working with the 15 or so kids as part the children's morning program. In another room another volunteer is taking an English class with six teenagers.

Teenagers in an English class

Today however, I am on lunch duty. This means helping Johanna, the cook, prepare lunch for around 120 local children who will be lining up outside the main door around 11:30am. I chat with her as I eat my breakfast and she smiles knowingly as she hands me a knife, chopping board and points at a large bucket of carrots and another of yucca. Over the last three weeks I have gotten a lot quicker at peeling and dicing these vegetables but I will never be as good as the locals.

Lunch time worker

Today we are making Sancocho de Gallina (Colombian Chicken Soup). On the large industrial stove the soup boils away as does a large pot of rice. I proudly announce that I have finished with a confident "Que hay más?" (is there any more?) not falling into the trap of saying "Que más?" as I did last week and giving Johanna the chance to response that she is good as a joke to the local phrase for "How are you?". Spending time with Johanna and the parents, who also help, has meant that my Spanish has improved a lot. Although the work can be repetitive the conversation and music on the radio make the time pass quickly.

Volunteer helping with Arts and Crafts

Around 11am, I help the other volunteers setup the tables and chairs for lunch. There is now no sign of the Art and Crafts chaos from earlier, just some lanterns still drying in the library. The children who had school in the morning are already lining up outside so I chat with some of them while Johanna and Berenice put some final touches to the lunch. At 11:30am we start putting the food on the tables and the first children enter. They are greeted with a smile, kiss and a reminder to wash their hands before taking their seats. Lunchtimes can be really busy. As soon as a child finishes their dessert and juice we need to wipe down their places and put another meal there for another child.

Children eating lunch

I talk to some of the older kids and tell them that I cut the vegetables for the soup. They are polite but seem completely unimpressed at my efforts. Still they have to agree the food is very good. For many of them this is their main meal of the day, for some their only one.

Out the back in the kitchen the dirty plates, cups and cutlery we deliver are being rinsed, washed and dried by one of the parents so they can be used again. I see that a table of smaller children are starting to get restless so I pull up a chair and help spoon in a few mouthfuls of soup, rice and salad. There is never any need to help with the dessert but they have to show a clean plate before they can have theirs.

Around 1pm there are no more children waiting and so we close the door and begin cleaning up. One of the things I find really interesting about being here is how even very everyday things are done a little differently. Simple things like washing dishes, mopping a floor and even chopping vegetables are done differently due to differences in materials and tradition. After three weeks I am a seasoned Colombian floor mopper and Johanna laughs as I enthusiastically ring out another mop before giving the floor a final going over.

Volunteer with a girl

At 1:30pm everything is clean and tidy. The volunteers help themselves to the delicious Sancocho. There is also rice, red kidney beans, salad and my favorite fried yucca. We all sit down to eat with Berenice and talk about the lunch. The group of volunteers we have is a real mixed group. We have a couple of Americans, a Canadian, a German and an English couple. The couple are doing a big four month trip around South America and so we talk a bit about where they are going next and how sad they will be to leave Ibagué.

At 2:30pm the afternoon session starts. The two Americans have their afternoon off and the English couple are going to work in another centre for Woman In Need in another suburb. So there is just the three of us here today. We start the session with the usual greeting. Each of the girls gives me a friendly kiss and the boys a complicated handshake as a way of saying hello. There are 35 in the class today ranging between 3 and 13. I lead off with a quick game of "Simon Says" using a combination of Spanish and English before the children separate into their groups and being working on their homework. I am in the middle of trying to remember if I ever could do long division with three fourth graders when Jimena arrives at 3:30pm. Tuesdays are Dance afternoon and Jimena is here to work with the children. I join along with the group as we learn the steps for a traditional Colombian folk dance. I can hear singing coming from the smaller children in the other room. Liliana (the teacher) and another volunteer are working on a Spanish version of Old McDonald and we laugh at the various farm yard noises we can hear.

Child singing with a Microphone

By 5pm the dance class comes to an end with some Reggaeton. It is amazing and a little startling how well some of these children can move so skillfully to the music. The weather is nice and sunny so we decide to take the children to the local park to finish the day. I have never played a lot of soccer but it is really popular here and most of the children quickly divide into two teams and we start a game. Some of the girls run to the swings and saw-saw.

At 5:20pm we head back to the centre and the children sit down and wait for their snacks. Johanna has prepared some rice pudding, using left-overs from lunch, and a piece of fruit. I help cut up the apples and we go around handing out the snacks to the children. By 5:30pm everything is gone and the children are dismissed one by one, leaving with the same kiss and/or handshake to each of the volunteers and teachers.

Visitng the children's houses

Last week I started walking with the children to their homes. Although I am tired it is really interesting to see where they live and they are very proud to introduce me to their families. I try hard to hide my shock at the condition of some of their houses. In many cases they are nothing more than corrugated iron sheets for the walls and roof with a dirt floor, held together with wire.

We walk back to the centre and I think about my own house growing up and how lucky I was that I did not need to share my room with my three siblings. The other volunteers have returned when we arrive and so we sit outside and talk about each other's days, using Spanish when we can but invariably in English for the complicated bits. I also find out I will go to another children's centre tomorrow in the morning and stay there for lunch before coming back to help here to in the afternoon.

Waterfalls at Chicala

There is talk of going swimming at some local waterfalls on Saturday and the American volunteers want to hit the Salsatecas on Friday night. We are all just thinking about going inside when Berenice tells us dinner is ready. After dinner I have arranged to ring my brother so I login to Skype and see that he is already Online, waiting for me. It seems strange talking to him about everything that is going on, knowing that he is continuing with his normal life back home. He asked me if I miss home and I say I do but that I will be sad to leave here as well. I head for bed and say good night to the other volunteers who are watching a DVD. As I get into bed I honestly can't remember being more tired or rewarded at the end of a day. I also can't remember what language I used to say good night.

Caroline, Belgium

Caroline, Belgium

I got a very good view of how locals live in Ibagué. I got to be in close contact with a lot of the kids, which has been a rewarding experience.

Jens, Norway

Jens, Norway

Best experience ever. The people that work here and all the children are wonderful. I enjoyed contributing to anything I could whether it was cooking, drawing, reading...

Hyo Jin, South Korea

Hyo Jin, South Korea

The children were amazing, everyday they greeted me with a kiss on the check.

John, UK

John, UK

I had never worked with children before and to be honest I was a little scared. However I have learnt so much from working with the children here.


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