What better way to reflect on the last three weeks than my first day back at work? Well for starters I have just had my lunch and there was no rice or beans in sight . I have never had such a carbohydrate rich diet in all my life, rice beans and pasta most days!
Let me begin with explaining a little about ACER, the NGO (Non Government Organisation) we have been volunteering for. ACER looks at a range of community based interaction, children are at the hub if its service delivery model but the organisation does not restrict itself to this remit. This widened the challenge for us volunteers to adapt and to be flexible to serve these needs.
Our place of work was in a location called Diedema a suburb of Sao Paulo. It’s a watershed area which means it should be Atlantic rainforest but in reality it is one of Sao Paulo’s most densely populated regions. As Favelas (shanty towns) go its pretty well equipped with 80% running water and mainly fixed structure building, although there are some very loose interpretations of building regulations!
The city itself has suffered long at the hands of crime and had at one point the highest murder rate of anywhere in Brazil (one of the most violent countries in the world), a succession of initiatives by the previous mayor have helped to limit the control of local gangs ensuring that the local population have increase security and all the trappings that go with this. ACER sits central to this regeneration programme linking in with several work streams to ensure sustainable growth and development. That said there are still acute social problems that make this an impoverished area a fickle micro economy.
So on to our role…..we arrived full of anticipation and a little anxious of our new surrounds! Luckily the Telefonica team had done some prework and we were greeted at the airport by our site based liaison team who in keeping with the Brazilian mantra were massively friendly and engaging. They have since become friends I might add.
We arrived at the hotel which sadly, not so much pre work had gone into. The flickering green neon sign burned into the night in a discerning manner. The décor was out of a 1970s film and well the beds…..I decided to stop eating there when I realised the menu of fried chicken with rice with beans didn’t change and of course when the cockroach beat me to the breakfast buffet. It was undoubtedly the one low point of the entire trip.
Our first week begin at a bit of a frantic pace, there was just so much to take in, a culture to get used to and the fact that we were working 8 – 7 for more or less six days a week. We did the normal meet and greets, played football and generally just tried to integrate and find our feet. The through put of children in the centre was immense, probably because all the schools had been closed due to swine flu. It became pretty evident that ACER offered a wide range of services and our input would have to be diverse.
We struggled on coping with the physically and emotionally demanding schedule pushing ourselves through the hard times with a close team bond. It was clear to me at this point that we would successfully manage through the programme.
Personally, the high point for me was the community work done at the local park. It was a blisteringly hot day and somewhere in the region of 100 children greeted us on arrival. R&B music drowned out the noise of kids playing but did little to offset the smell of stagnant sewage in the adjacent creek. The scene was of a colourful tapestry sports, people and sounds which was, initially, over bearing.
It was around this time I realised how bad I was at football after watching an 8 year old child put a third past me, still Scotland have never had a proud record in South America! As I slumped in the shade with my fellow volunteers, children appeared from nowhere to join us. Within minutes the questions started coming thick and fast. Of course none of us knew what was being asked given they speak Portuguese in Brazil, still you quickly understand you need to be emotionally intelligent in these environments. Soon we were holding court and got dragged off to play volleyball with the girls.
Why was this a high point you may ask? Well it demonstrated to me how important ACER was in the community, we understood the importance of emotional intelligence and it build the communities trust and confidence in our intentions. As I write I realise the significance of this level of engagement which was very much design rather than accident from Jonathan (General Secretary for ACER). We slept well that night! Well as well as you could at our hotel.
Saturday was our big painting day, Telefónica volunteers joined us as we sought to revitalise the centre, painting the outside, the library, the staff room and ICT centre. My god we did some work that day, well and the previous one having to move 10,000 books 1000 metres above sea level isn’t easy. The results however, complimented the effort invested.
We began week two buoyed with the enthusiasm of the events previous as well as our day of rest. By the way Sao Paulo is with out a doubt the single ugliest city I have ever visited quite a contrast to its people. We quickly set to work establishing a project planning chart and getting to work on some of the data analysis, things started to get the “being at work feel to them” luckily this was soon averted as the Ceoperia (a form of Brazilian martial art) music started up. I soon found myself back in the board room after pulling my hamstring trying to copy a 10 year old girl.
We put right the library and got to work on setting the agenda for the forthcoming week. We also got to put some work into our cultural presentations as well as deliver English and Spanish classes. As the week progressed it became apparent that the analysis elements would be a challenge, this however did little to dampen the team spirits. Children were beginning to become more friendly towards us looking to interact and play all the more. Clearly word had got round the community given that there was an influx of new faces.
The big event for that week was the tree planting and we were keen to ensure that we transferred project planning skills across. Marcus and Bianca set about the knowledge transfer to compliment Fillipes excel classes. All the preparatory work in hand we shaped up to the challenge. What we hadn't of course banked on was that the Brazilian government decided not to deliver all the trees the night before and on the day went about things in the wrong order.
Still not to be put out by matters we pushed on. To give you an idea of the intensity that we operated at, I broke two shovels planted 58 trees and drank 4 lts of water, and I was by no means the example. We didn’t sleep well that night because we decided to head to the beach and celebrate 😉
By week three it was quite clear that we had started to win the hearts and minds. The community agreed to let us do some filming and to take some photos, a clear sign that we had started to gain trust and standing. The passing of the days seem to move at a pace. We seemed to be making headway on all quarters, well aside from the footballing ability! We elected to continue painting and slowly worked our way into the community area as well as the hall way, breaking a multitude of health and safety regulations on the way.
Children had started to learn everyone’s name, which is not great when you are trying to shirk a game of hide and seek or British Bulldogs (no its not called that there!). School had started back as well so there was more structure to our days given that the volume of bodies had decreased. We continued the push with our classes, knowledge transfer and general labouring and interacting.
We also met with the president of Telefónica in Brazil and put to him as best we could the need for our business units over there to continue the investment not just in cash terms but also in intelligence capital. I am not sure if it landed but we pitched it anyway.
Wednesday we visited the British Consulate for a Scottish night which included highland dancing, curry and Guinness. We also elected not to spend our Telefónica allowance on food but rather on buying games for the kids in the centre.
While in the shop there was a little girl sleeping on comfy seats, normally a cute scene until you realise that she was a street kid that the shop let in. Makes me a bit emotional thinking about it….
The hangovers the next day soon were shaken off as we delivered the games to an expectant audience of eager kids. Watching them play filled me with a sense of optimism as well as a feeling of pride at what we had done, ok it was a bit a cope out just delivering some presents but the heart warming piece centred around the children teaching us how to play and wanting to involve us in their games.
Friday was our last day with the kids around the camp our mood was a bit sombre as we realised that the experience was coming to an end. We had a Telefónica lunch to go to in the afternoon, then free time thereafter. As a group we elected to return to ACER after lunch, arriving at the centre we were greeted by a mass of fresh young faces, apparently they had been in tears at our departure fearing we wouldn’t return without sharing the goodbyes.
The one poignant moment for me was sitting upstairs with a young lass, her brother and their friend as they browsed through my phones photos and took some more. Beatrice played with my hair as I helped show the functionality of the phone to her brother, I realised my experience would soon be over and I felt the normal regret regarding if I had maximised every moment to make a difference for these children.
I also had the dawning realisation that this is not the aim, the aim was simply to demonstrate to young people who have lost there childhood that there is little wrong optimism, endeavour opportunity and trust.
This is drawn all the more into focus when you realise a further element, and the more heavily staffed, of ACERs remit is to look after children from abusive backgrounds
So to some up the event, clearly the experience was highly rewarding our interactions with kids will have a lasting place in my memory as will the group of very special people that I have spent my time with. I am not as arrogant to think that we will have a lasting difference, but we made a difference and that for me is the main thing.
I guess the other lesson that the experience taught me was how emotionally poor the standards are in this country. It was a real joy to watch the social structure and sharing environment that the children created, after speaking with some of my peers, this simply doesn’t function in the same way in the UK.
I have nothing but admiration for Jonathan and his team who continue to work in a challenging environment with little resource, money and against a bureaucratic government.