My eyes scan the small living room, taking in the scene of absolute chaos. I see four children fighting for my hands, a monkey-like child jumping from a bookcase onto my back, two children peeing in the corner, and two more screaming at each other. The remaining five children play with the tattered stuffed animals strewn about the floor. The television, playing in Spanish (a language with which I am unfamiliar), can barely be heard over the noise. In that moment of pure pandemonium I think back to two weeks earlier, sitting in my comfortable home in Arizona. I had anticipated this trip for so long; had I really willingly thrown myself out of my comfort zone for this? I had most certainly expected the month spent in La Paz, Bolivia to be life changing, but I had not expected the hard work, pain, and heartache the trip caused.
Last winter, I decided I wanted to visit my uncle in Bolivia for one month; it would be a worthwhile chance to experience a new culture and put to use a language I had spoken only in the classroom. I would be safe and comfortable living with my uncle but still retain the independence to explore the city and truly get a feel for the culture. I also wanted to spend some of my time volunteering. While researching potential opportunities I found a well-run orphanage called Para Los Ninos (For the Children) located ten minutes from my uncle’s house. After further investigation I knew I wanted to spend my month in Bolivia aiding these children.
Immersing myself in the Bolivian culture and the Spanish language was at first very difficult. The culture shock was overwhelming, and for days my head reeled. The day my work at the orphanage began, I arrived at the small compound and found that nobody spoke English. I realized then that I was no longer in my comfort zone.
Although nervous when I first arrived, shouts of “Voluntaria!” echoed throughout the cramped living space where I would spend my next month. These small children, desperate for love and attention, immediately accepted me. In the following weeks, I worked harder than I have ever worked. I was in physical pain because there was always a dirty child climbing into my lap, hitting me, kissing and hugging me, shouting at me, and spitting on me. I bent over constantly to help babies walk and wipe dirty behinds. Moreover, it was emotionally exhausting. Fourteen small children touched my heart in a way that no one had before as I realized the depth of their yearning for affection.
But in those moments of chaos, I discovered profound change. By persevering through the hard work and pain, I found that the biggest risk of my life had been the most rewarding.
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