Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Finally, a break....

I can't belive it's been 16 days since my last post! I have been so incredibly busy that the time has just flown by. Right now, believe it or not, I'm in Bucaramanga, a city about 8 hours from Bogota via bus. I'm here volunteering with an organization called FundaciĆ³n Esperanza Viva (Living Hope Foundation) that provides legal, psychological and spiritual assitance to patients with cancer. I just got here yesterday and have to leave tomorrow so it's a very short visit, but already I've been amazed by the work they're doing here! We met with several patients today who ranged from 11 months to 70 years old so in only one day we really got to see the extent of the work they do. Legally, they have an attorney that writes "demands" for patients who are poor and in need of assistance. These outline the fundamental human rights of the patients and how they are being violated through the neglect of basic medical care and treatment. If granted, the demands allow for transportation and medical costs to be paid in full by a combination of the patient's employer, social security and other government assistance. This literally means the difference between life and death for these patients! Just last year, 35 demands were made successfully and more are expected this year.

Alas, I'll have to try and write more about this organization later as I only have a few minutes online. I actually don't have my computer with me and am in the lobby of our hotel paying per hour for the internet. I'm absolutely exhausted and have another busy day of volunteering tomorrow. On top of that, from here, Mike and I are going to Santa Marta for 3 days, then Cartegena for 3 days and finally back to Bogota for 5 days. After that, we begin our month long journey through southern Colombia to Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Luckily, the stops in Santa Marta and Cartegena are just for fun so I'll finally get a chance to relax some! I've been volunteering 7 days a week which, while simply amazing, has really tested the extremes of my endurance. A week of chilling on the beach sounds incredible right about now :-)

As for the last 16 days, well, I suppose an in depth update will have to wait on that too, haha. I've actually been dying to write an update, but have not had internet access at any of the apartments I've been staying at. When I have had the chance to get online, I have so much to do with eBay and with volunteering research that 2 hours will pass and I'll have barely scratched the surface of what I need to do. Nonetheless, I have been taking tons of pictures and was able to create a Flickr account to chronicle them. While I still have tons of pictures to load and have not made individual comments on each photo yet, you can view what I've uploaded here:

My Flickr Page!

I have continued volunteering with Voces Del Silencio every weekend and you can see the pictures from the 3 concerts I've now been to. I also visited 3 RGOS computer centers last Saturday which you can see pictures from as well. While I probably won't be uploading any pictures over the next week while I'm sipping rum on the beach, lol, I will definitely be doing so as soon as I return.

In the meantime, Alison has been making some great blog entries that deal with the crisis that has been unfolding in Colombia over the last 2 weeks. I'd encourage you to read about it on her blog here:

Alison's Blog

Unfortunately, I have to get going. I miss you all and hope that all is going well. For all my youth reading this, I've been getting all the youth group emails and am glad you are all staying busy! I can't belive graduation is coming up for some of you! Keep up all the good work at church and stay in touch.

Hasta Luego!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

"International Translator"

Okay, so this past weekend has simply been unbelievable! First off, I'll quickly update that I have finalized my volunteering schedule for now until April. On Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, I will be working with Mercado Social and Global Opportunity Garden; on Wednesdays, I am teaching English at Fundacion Formemos; on Fridays I am volunteering for RGOS; and, on the weekends, I have varying responsibilities. This weekend, for example, I am going to visit one of RGOS's telecenters on Saturday morning and then volunteer with Voces Del Silencio in the evening and all day Sunday. Next weekend, I actually have way too many opportunities and still have to decide which I want to do.

The work I'll be doing with Mercado Social and Global Opportunity Garden is really an amazing opportunity. My basic responsibilities are to 1) do follow up research on the camera donations made by GOG and document how they are being used and 2) visit a number of different foundations throughout Colombia and document their history, mission and projects in English. This is important because there are an unlimited amount of fundraising opportunities in the United States but almost no one here to write the proposals in English. Through Mercado and the relationships it has with deserving foundations, I will be writing briefs for each so that organizations in the US can recognize them and consider them for funding. Really awesome stuff!

I'd love to give more information about each specific foundation, but alas, I am again faced with my being absolutely exhausted and only having a few minutes of internet access. So, I must get to why this weekend was amazing! As of my last post, I didn't have anything planned for this weekend and was looking forward to some down time. But, when meeting with Marcela and designing my volunteer program with Mercado, she said that Voces Del Silencio was doing another concert this Saturday. I, of course, couldn't help but tag along. Wow, am I glad I did! I've seen several of their concerts - at least a half dozen - but never had I been able to see it from "behind the scenes." Not only was I able to see them practice, ride on the bus with them, etc., they as a group decided to "baptize" me as a volunteer and give me my own "sign." Since most of them can't speak, they each have a sign that, essentially, is just a combination of hand motions that identifies them. Mine was the letter K in sign language on the right eyebrow and then a flick over my right shoulder (which made fun of my blonde hair, haha). Okay, I know it sounds ridiculous, but it was so amazing to have them accept me like that :-)

They then took it upon themselves as a group to teach me sign language. Keep in mind, however, that I don't speak Spanish!! So, I am learning the Spanish alphabet so I can spell words that I subsequently won't understand anyways, haha. Surprisingly, though, I was able to pick it up pretty quickly and now know the entire alphabet in Spanish sign language!! Again, my enthusiasm might seem extreme, but I can't tell you how cool it was to be able to communicate with this group of youth who can neither speak nor hear! They not only taught me sign language, but also, in the process, were teaching me Spanish as well. I actually really learned alot!

That was yesterday. Then, I found out that they had another concert today! Of course, I decided to go to that as well, haha. I arrived this morning at 10am to watch them practice and quickly was told that they were short a volunteer and needed me to help sign. Okay, let me pause here say that again: They wanted ME to help them sign! I can't possibly convey just how unprepared I was for that, lol. At first, I thought they were joking and laughed. Their stares quickly told me otherwise so I changed gears and prepared to officially sign for the first time in my life. Since some of the youth are both deaf and blind, even when they have a leader showing them the signs to do during the concert, they also need someone directly behind them signing on their backs so they can feel what to do and when. This is what they needed me to do!

Even though I didn't have alot of faith in myself, the practice went flawlessly as I was able to look at the person signing next to me and just copy what they were doing. I also was assisting one of the best in the group who had nearly memorized each song. So, luckily, even if I occasionally made a mistake, he knew and would correct me. Pretty impressive when you think about it! Practice ended and I was relieved that my signing responsibilities were done for the day. Then, of course, I found out the volunteer also wasn't going to be able to make it to the concert!! You guessed it, I quickly became an official Voces Del Silencio translator for the day!!

Yesterday's concert was great and the turnout was wonderful as we had about 100 people at a local school. Little did I know that today's would be about 5 times that big as another local school was having a huge 25th anniversary festival! We're talking dozens of food booths, huge advertising sponsorships from Coca-Cola and Movistar (one of the biggest cell phone services here), and yes, at least 500 people, if not more. So there I was, before I knew it, on stage in front of hundreds of people translating signs I didn't even understand!

To be honest, even now, several hours later, I'm still on an emotional high. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life! The whole group, after the concert, piled on top of me in a congratulatory tackle. They dubbed me their "International Translator" and told me I could not leave Colombia before learning sign language so I could volunteer with them full time, haha.

It's difficult to convey an experience like that and how special it truly is. These kids have literally faced death due to their disability (as deaf or blind children in Colombia are almost always shunned or abandoned) and have overcome adversity by choosing to use their life situation to inspire others! They are an unbelievable group of kids who have such a positive attitude and energy that it is instantly contagious. Just being around them was awesome, let alone having them teach me, accept me and, ultimately, have me as an actual interpreter.

This is why my weekend was one of the best I've had in my life :-)