My experience in Bolivia will definitely be one that I will always remember. There are so many things that I learned about myself and about the culture of Bolivia. I know that it will be hard for others (friends, family, etc.) to relate with me about my experience here, but hopefully I will be able to convey to them what my experience did for me. There were definitely times that were difficult, but by working through them, I was able to learn even more about myself. The community of sisters, volunteers, and people of Okinawa definitely made the experience a memorable one.
Hometown: Elkhart, IN
Time in Okinawa: 2 years – September 2001 to December 2003
- 2001 – Volunteers: Kris Meiergerd, Natalie Vaughan, Dan Herrera, Brian Terrien, Matt Welsh Sors: Sor Lucila Guerra, Sor Lucía Espinoza, Sor Anabel, Sor Geraldina, Sor Nora Cordón
- 2002 – Volunteers: Kris Meiergerd, Matt Welsh Sors: Sor Lucila Guerra, Sor Marina Aguilar, Sor Elizabet Uscamayta, Sor Nora Cordón, Sor Eli Mencía
- 2003 – Volunteers: Kris Meiergerd, Alison Tullis, Kathleen Curran Sors: Sor Lucila Guerra, Sor Marina Aguilar, Sor Elizabet Uscamayta, Sor Nora Cordón, Sor Eli Mencía
- 2001 – Lived in the “volunteer house” (the house owed by the Japanese Association) with Natalie for the last three months
- 2002 – Lived in the “volunteer house” with Kris
- 2003 – Moved over to the parish house with Kris so the girls could live in the house
- 2001 – English: Primero A, Segundo C, Cuarto Medio; Computers: Assisted Dan with one of his computer classes
- 2002 – English: Primeros, Segundo A and C, Terceros, Cuartos; Computers: Segundo A and C; Art: Séptimos; Technical Drawing: Octavo B; Music: Cuarto Basico; Typing: Octavos
- 2003 – English: All septimos, all cuartos and Segundo B; Typing: Octavo A and B
Other Activities/Responsibilities: Mainly our responsibilities dealt with teaching and helping the sisters with whatever they needed. It seemed that, because we had international driver’s licenses, we were driving the Sors around to many places. We also helped out with a lot of the work that had to be done on the computer (forms, letters, grades, etc.). We also helped out with handing out grades and entering the grades into the computer.
The second year, Kris and I were able to do community work with Sor Nora. Sor headed out to the communities on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Fortunately, I was able to get Thursdays and Fridays off of school, while Kris was able to get off Wednesdays, which for both of us was a good change from the first year, where we were pretty swamped with class work. We were in charge of IRFA, which is the education-by-radio program. Basically, we were the contacts between the Santa Cruz office and the 12 surrounding communities. Our jobs included: registration, collecting money, handing out the texts, handing out exams, and basic communication between us and the professors in the communities. It was, at times, a lot of work (mainly at test time and giving out the texts), but overall was a good experience because we got to know all of the surrounding communities.
Something New: One thing we enjoyed doing was playing volleyball with the students. We began a “Tuesday Night Volleyball” where students would pay a one-time fee (2 Bs) that we would use for purchasing volleyballs. It was a once a week meeting, so the kids didn’t turn into professionals, but it was a fun way to get to know the kids outside of the classroom setting. At the end of the year, the first Olympics (“Las Olympiadas”) were held at María Auxiliadora in Montero and we were able to send a male and female team from Okinawa to compete. They did great! The boys ended up getting 2nd place!
In 2003 the volunteers were programmed in the mass singing schedule for the second Sunday of every month. We were complete with the guitar, drum, tambourine and moroccos! We had fun doing it and even threw in an English song once in a while.
2002 was the first year that we tried the computerized report cards. The years before were done by writing everything down numerous times. We wanted to get away from that, so Dan Herrera, who worked on the file for the trimester boletines, Matt Welsh, Kris and I all worked on the system so we could use it that year. At the end of the year, instead of having to write every students grade on each grade card, we were able to send the grade cards through the printer and it came out with all of their grades printed. It was a lot of work in between, but it was worth it. Hopefully, the sisters and Okinawa will continue to use the system.
One other thing that we did was to have computerized typing class. When I first got there, they were using typewriters for the 7th and 8th grade classes, which is a good way to learn, but once they get into 8th grade and have somewhat of a handle on things, they are ready for more. The computer room was set up so that we were able to use a computer program called TypingMaster. In the program, each student has his/her account that they access each week. The program takes them through exercises that help with their typing and goes at a speed that fits each person. It is a good idea, but you must have patience! One reason is because like any other thing relying on computers, things can, and will, go wrong. Also, it is the first time that many of these kids have seen/operated a computer, so basic things such as moving a mouse can be quite the task. Now imagine 40 kids in the same room like that!
Free Time: In my free time, I enjoyed playing the guitar and trying to play the other interesting Bolivian instruments. Kris and I even went as far as buying charangos and going into Santa Cruz each week for lessons for 3 weeks. You won’t be seeing us on any CD covers, but it was a good time!
I also enjoyed reading while in Bolivia. I can honestly say that I read more books in Bolivia than I have read in my entire life! With all of those trufi rides and buses, I needed something to do. The selection at the houses isn’t too bad, either.
I also tried to do some sort of exercise when I could. I was definitely better when I first got down here, but as time went on, the time spaces got filled. The Japanese have a great pool to swim in if you are interested. I also went a couple times to the coliseum owned by the Japanese Association to play futsol (soccer played on a basketball court). That was fun, but it took about 3 or 4 days to recover from playing!
Memories: With two years of memories, it’s hard to put down just a few. What can you say about all the late nights, early school mornings, the “Bolivian Stomach”, dancing Los Tinkus, food in the communities, Bolivian markets, Séptimo C English, 110 volts versus 220 volts, August 15th fiesta, chicha, the great Bolivian music, going to Los Kjarkas concert with the nuns, swimming in the Rio Grande, visits to the Japanese hospital, overpowering brass bands in church, the best dog in Okinawa – Yosé, feeding Yosé, 40 seventh graders screaming “Unicorn”, Japanese food, trufi/taxi adventures, Matt, Kris and I shaving our heads and going camping, transporting 25 computers from La Paz to Okinawa, anticucho, mocochinchi, empanadas, cuñapé, tamarindo, mango season, singing at mass, “Hello, good morning” song, El Sur, roofing the plaza’s kiosk in the middle of a strong storm, the haunted house – gringo style, renting motorcycles and hitting the open road, Matt’s motorcycle breaking down and towing him with my motorcycle and MUCH MORE!
Classroom Adventures: Ah yes, teaching. That was quite the experience. As I was preparing for my time in Okinawa, I got myself somewhat ready to teach subjects such as math, physics, chemistry, and English. Not in a million years did I ever think I would be teaching music or ART! Let’s just say that the kids really got to learn how to draw stick-men really well!
As with every other volunteer, the learning curve is pretty steep when you arrive. I remember being in one of the classes when I first got here and I thought to myself, “I am responsible for the education of these 40 kids – and I don’t even hardly speak their language!” For me, I had to kind of take myself out of the situation to realize that I was actually doing it. Other times I just had to take myself out of the situation! The level of frustration reached levels that didn’t come very often. Yes, I walked out of several classes. In 2002, Tercero A and Octavo A were pretty notorious for that, then again in 2003 with Cuarto A (although I don’t think I walked out that year). I definitely believed that my tolerance level grew as the time went by.
And then there was Cuarto basico music. This was held on Wednesday afternoons from about 1PM until 5:15PM. There were three classes and I went from one to the other, “spreading the joy of music!” Sounds good, but with fourth graders, it’s a lot easier said than done. Let’s just say I lasted ONE CLASS doing it alone! After the first week, I realized that I needed some help. That’s when I called on my fellow volunteer Kris to come in and save me. I should have called him Lieutenant Kris, because in this class his main job was to police the classroom and make sure the kids were doing what they should have been doing. The basic format of the class was to come in, sing a list of songs that we sang every week (the “regulars” such as En el Nombre del Padre, Tu Eres la Voz, En Ese Barco, and MANY MORE), and then I would give them a new song that I picked out about 15 minutes before class. Advice, don’t dictate songs to cuarto basico, write it on the board. Dictating is grounds for class chaos. Kris had his own adventures of policing the classroom.
Frustrations/Challenges: See above for specifics. I believe my frustrations changed as time went on. When I first began, I had the typical “can’t really say what I want” frustrations. However, as time went on, that frustration became less significant and other little frustrations began to rise. The whole not having textbooks was pretty frustrating and pretty much getting used to the Bolivian system was tough. The cheating issue was tough to fight and at times I felt it happened on such a large scale that my enforcing it really wouldn’t matter – that’s not true! Granted, it is difficult to change when it is a problem that is so widespread, but enforcing the no-cheating policy is something that must continue. Don’t lose hope!!
Another challenge I faced, and I think others face it as well, was the lack of spiritual time. Coming to Bolivia right after school, I was accustomed to the accessibility of daily mass and personal time to reflect. Padre Mike celebrated mass twice a week, Thursdays and Sundays, but all the other days were left open. That was tough for me because I used daily mass as a means of quiet time/personal reflection, and not having that was tough. I did what I could and Kris and I began a Bible study, however, it was hard to keep consistent because things always came up. My advice would be to set aside a time, whether it be with yourself or with other volunteers, and when that time comes around, it’s YOURS! Use it to reflect, pray, etc, but USE IT!
Additional Comments: My experience in Bolivia will definitely be one that I will always remember. There are so many things that I learned about myself and about the culture of Bolivia. I know that it will be hard for others (friends, family, etc.) to relate with me about my experience here, but hopefully I will be able to convey to them what my experience did for me. There were definitely times that were difficult, but by working through them, I was able to learn even more about myself. The community of sisters, volunteers, and people of Okinawa definitely made the experience a memorable one.