I have gone through much of my life wrestling with — what was for me — the hardest question I could ever face: How can I make a difference in the lives of others? This past summer, I travelled to La Paz, Bolivia for one month on my own and volunteered at an orphanage seeking an answer to this question. During this time, I worked with babies in the morning and fourteen small children, ages 3-10, in the afternoon. The volunteer coordinator expected me to oversee activities, assist the mamita (mother) by serving dinner and keeping the house in order, and help the children read. Spending this month with the children was, without a doubt, a life changing experience; I discovered strengths I never thought I had, realized weaknesses, and witnessed unforgettable moments.
Immersing myself in the Bolivian culture and the Spanish language was at first very difficult, the culture shock overwhelming, and for about four days left my head reeling. Finally I was to begin work at the orphanage, where nobody spoke English. While I went into the trip confident in my Spanish, I realized that I could not communicate nearly as well as I originally believed.
I was a nervous wreck arriving at the orphanage. Would the kids like me? Would my little knowledge of Spanish be sufficient to communicate with them? When the volunteer coordinator took me to my Casita (or little home) where I would be working, my fears were immediately washed away. The minute I walked in, I somehow had six different children’s hands in mine, they were touching my face constantly, and shouts of “Voluntaria!” were heard throughout the small living room.
I worked the hardest I have ever worked in my life during that short month. I was asked to perform a lot of dirty jobs, and many which simply presented themselves to me. I was in physical pain for the majority of the month, due to the fact that I bent over constantly to help the babies walk. The children were wild and starved for attention; as soon as I looked away, one would scurry up a bookcase and jump onto my back. There was always a child kissing and hugging me, climbing into my lap, hitting me, and shouting at me. It was emotionally exhausting when I discovered that I couldn’t give these orphans even a fraction of the love and attention they deserve.
One afternoon, about three weeks into my trip, I was overcome by a strange feeling. I looked around and realized that these kids are their only family. They are forced to take care of each other, and despite the constant yelling, hitting, and fighting, they really do love one another. This was truly the defining moment of my trip; if these kids, who have so very little, can love and take care of each other, then I, a privileged teenager living in the United States can most certainly love and take care of my neighbors, locally and globally. That is when I realized that by loving others, I truly can make a difference.
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