Finding the right volunteering position is hard work. Is it ethical volunteering? Will I make a difference? Is the project sustainable? How do I know that the organisation is doing the right thing? These questions were all swirling through my head as I started to search for the right volunteering position for me. Finally, I found it in La Alianza- volunteering at a rescue shelter in Guatemala City.
What is volunteering at a rescue shelter like?
La Alianza is a rescue shelter in Guatemala City for girls and adolescents, as well as their children and female siblings, who are victims of sexual violence or human trafficking.
Originally, I had hoped that I would spend my days either working in the shelter or helping prepare the girls for their court cases . But volunteering is all about flexibility and unfortunately my Spanish wasn’t good enough for those jobs. So, I came up with other ideas that met my skill set as well as the needs of the organisation.
A lot of the donations for the shelter come from foreign organisations, however, the latest annual report was only in Spanish. I spoke with the Director, Carolina Escobar Sarti, and we decided that I should translate their annual report into English. This would be an important resource to help the organisation source additional funding and provide valuable information to their supporters about their progress to date. Having never translated anything before, and with only five weeks of Spanish lessons under my belt, this proved to be quite the challenge!
One of my favourite jobs during my time with La Alianza was teaching English to some of the girls. Most of them already study English at school, however, most of the teachers are not native speakers so often they don’t get to hear native speakers accents or learn slang or more colloquial expressions. Twice a week, I held classes for about 10 of the girls and we focused on the basics – such as introducing yourself, colours and clothing. The girls were shy at first but, over time, I saw them practising more and more often. They would even ask me how to say particular sentences so they could impress their mother’s during the next family visit!
Since leaving Guatemala, I have been filming videos of English (ESL) lessons for the girls and adolescents at La Alianza. After speaking with Carolina, we have decided to post these videos online to help other volunteers and anyone else who is hoping to learn English. These videos have been tailored to meet the needs of the girls at La Alianza and have Spanish subtitles, however,l our hope is that they are useful to a range of audiences. These videos will be available on the Grassroots Nomad YouTube channel.
I also tutored one of the girls, *Claire, in one-on-one sessions. Claire is a very special young lady who is part of the La Alianza Transition House program. After turning 18 years old, she moved into Transition House, which is a stepping stone between living at the shelter and living independently. Here, Claire was helped to find a job at a call centre where she worked in English, and she was given support and advice to prepare her for an independent life after she leaves La Alianza.
I have never been so proud as when she came into the office to tell me that she passed her exams (one of the few students to do so), and had been given the top client at work. La Alianza doesn’t just help the girls escape bad situations – they give them the confidence and skills necessary to live successful and happy lives.
What were the girls like?
To say that the girls and adolescents at La Alianza are tough is an understatement. While I will not talk about specific cases, most of the girls have experienced horrific sexual abuse, often at the hands of family members. Some girls arrive at the shelter pregnant, or with babies, with medical problems, and with psychological issues as a result of this trauma. Some have even been victims of human trafficking.
Despite this, they all support one another and have made their own little community. This is all due to the incredible philosophy and mission of La Alianza under the leadership and guidance of Carolina Escobar and her team. They adopt a holistic approach to healing that fosters hope, personal development, as well as changing perceptions. When leaving La Alianza, the girls and adolescents not only have the skills required to succeed in life, but also the inner strength and courage to aim for the clouds. In doing so, the perception of the rights of the child has been challenged in Guatemala.
The La Alianza team is one big family. Everyone looks after each other and I felt this warmth as soon as I walked into the offices. The girls and adolescents are welcomed into the shelter with open arms and are loved and accepted for who they are. Thanks to the spectacular staff, the girls are shown that there are people in the world who care for them and want them to succeed.
What was living in Guatemala City like?
The hardest part about my volunteering experience (apart from learning Spanish) was actually living in Guatemala City. It is a dangerous city, and while I never once felt uneasy or unsafe, this meant that it was very hard to make friends. There aren’t many social groups that you can join or places to go and just hang out. Everyone always has a reason for leaving the house and they aren’t too open to talking to strangers. This meant that I was often very lonely and sometimes it made it hard to stay positive.
Who are La Alianza?
La Alianza is the Guatemalan branch of Covenant House. They serve and protect homeless children and adolescents and work with these boys, girls and adolescents to establish a pact of trust, respect and unconditional love. They are committed to creating exceptional opportunities for the personal development and well-being of children and adolescents in their care so they can reach their highest potential. For more information about La Alianza, or to donate online to help them continue this important work, please visit their website (Spanish only) or an English summary on the main Covenant House website.
Have you volunteered before? We would love to hear from you!
If you have volunteered with a small, community-based organisation that upholds the values of responsible volunteering, we would love to hear from you! If you would like to share your story, please email firstname.lastname@example.org Thank you!
*Name has been changed to protect this woman’s identity.