One of the main reasons we wanted to come to Cusco, Peru – besides visiting Machu Picchu, of course – was to volunteer; and Cusco did not disappoint us in that regard. There are a number of volunteering opportunities here. We found a school called Aldea Yanapay where kids can go after regular school hours to experience a kind of love and learning they don’t get anywhere else. Many of these children are abused by their parents, beaten by their teachers at school, and often come home to alcoholism and prostitution. Aldea Yanapay tries to show them another way to live through the example of more loving adults, and a clean environment.
Kids come each weekday from 3:00-6:30pm. For the first hour, the children can choose between art, games, reading or homework help, and the volunteers assist in each of these areas. Each class also gets a little break for more physical activities such as jumping rope and hula hoops. Then everyone at the school meets in a circle to hear an inspirational message from the director, be reminded of the school rules, and reinforce what they’re learning. The last part of the day, the kids are divided into classes by age to be taught about a particular subject by the volunteers.
This week the theme was “countries”, so each class is learning about a different country (last week’s theme was Judaism). I was placed in the “cielo” (sky) class of 6 year olds – mostly boys – along with another volunteer named Maia from the U.S. Most volunteers taught the kids about their own country, but we chose to teach about Japan instead of the U.S. because the culture in Japan is more unified and unique, and because I was already familiar with it having lived there for two years. We made origami, taught them the “Sakura Sakura” folk song, some basic Japanese words, practiced karate and sumo wrestling (only a little, though), made the Japanese flag, and learned some different symbols and basic facts about Japan.
Some of the kids have severe attention problems, ignore you when their name is called, and frequently yell or push other kids or teachers. Violence is not tolerated here, though, and it is sometimes a challenge to keep the environment positive. Other children are really sweet, well-behaved and quite intelligent. It’s a joy to walk into a room and have a child run up to you and give you a big hug because they’re so happy to see you. It makes you feel like at least you’re brightening a child’s day, and they are doing the same for you. I was happy that this happened regularly.
On Friday, each class puts on a little “show” about what they’ve learned during the week. In my class, the kids sang, showed their origami, and told about the Japanese flag, their favorite anime cartoons, and spoke a few Japanese words. Jen’s class learned about Costa Rica, and in the show they made a volcano that erupted using vinegar and baking soda. It was definitely a hit – in more ways than one, because it shot all over Yuri, the director, who of course took it in great humor.
Emily and Marie enjoyed most of their time at the school, but were a bit overwhelmed by the attention they received, and also by the rowdiness of some of the boys. The first few days, Emily clung to me like a vine whenever we were together and was almost scared to tears. But by the end, they were jumping rope, doing art, and having fun with the rest of the kids.
Volunteering at Aldea Yanapay was challenging work, but also very rewarding. I think we grew from it, and hopefully made a small contribution with our efforts. We made some great friends with the other volunteers as well. I’m glad we could have the opportunity to do this as a family, and hope to find other great volunteering opportunities in the future.