This little girl is named Jackie. She is nine years old, has five siblings, and is incredibly patient with me while I try and communicate in my elementary Spanish.
She also happens to live in one of the poorest neighborhood in Tucuman.
For the last five weeks, I have spent my Tuesday and Thursday nights volunteering with an after-school program for kids from Barrio Villa Noventa. Jimi’s mom, Marlene, started working with families in this neighborhood seven years ago. Today, there are over thirty children from ten different families involved. Twice a week, the kids are shuttled by bus to a local church, where a regular service staff provides snacks, help with homework, and fun games and activities.
I have volunteered many times in my life. I have worked in soup kitchens, helped out at fundraisers, led a women’s small group in Tijuana, and made cookies for old ladies in retirement homes. I can honestly say, though, that my time here in Argentina with these children has been the most draining, humbling, and powerful volunteer experience I have ever had.
The kids are sharp and energetic (and completely adorable). I see their happy faces and find it hard to picture that their lives are really that tough. But then I hear the stories…
About 4-year-old, Kayla, whose 17-year-old mom just had twins.
About 6-year-old April, who told me her favorite part of the program was “getting to do her homework because there is no peace and quiet at home”.
About Lautaro, whose parents abandoned him years ago.
And about Jackie, whose mother broke her arm in a fit of rage earlier this year.
These stories break my heart. Not in a Lifetime movie way, but in a tangible “I can’t play with this child without thinking about how horrible her life is” type of way. For three hours, twice a week, I draw pictures with Samira and throw a ball with Jackie. I share a cookie with Axelle and his twin brother, Lucas. And I hope I’ve made their lives a little bit happier.
I just want to share one more story. In Argentina, Mother’s Day is celebrated on the third Sunday of October, which was this past weekend. In honor of this, we helped the kids make cards and gifts for their moms and hosted a big celebration on the following Tuesday evening. Over fifteen moms arrived, most with babies in their arms, and our usual attendance of kids doubled. All of the volunteers brought food and everyone feasted, chatted and played for hours. I was asked a number of times how many children I had (yikes!).
While I was refilling a plate of cookies, Jackie quietly tugged on my shirt.
“Yes? What do you need?” I asked, looking at her pleading face and trying to communicate as best I could.
“May I have some cookies to take home for my mom? She couldn’t make it today.”
I almost burst into tears on the spot. Child services had stepped in to give custody of Jackie and her siblings to their stepfather after her mother’s most recent violent outburst. But here Jackie was, hoping to bring her something special for Mother’s Day. We found a bag for her and packed up some treats, along with the card she had made.
It was a moment that will stay with me for a long time. I knew I would make a lot of memories on this trip, and I know there are a lot of adventures ahead. But, I also wanted some powerful personal moments and this was one of those.