Almost exactly one year ago I first arrived at Mi Club Domingo Savio, where I was to work as a volunteer for six months. As a young and idealistic college graduate I had high hopes for my upcoming international volunteer experience, and I was counting on the fact that these hopes would offset my rather meager understanding of Spanish and the fact that I had not the slightest idea how to work with children, or if I would even enjoy it.
“Mi Club” Domingo Savio is the current incarnation of the Hogar Domingo Savio which first brought Steve Reifenberg to Chile in 1982 and as such provided the impetus for Santiago’s Children. Until I decided to volunteer through VEGlobal, the NGO that coordinated my volunteer work, I had never heard of Domingo Savio and I knew nothing of its story. But during my six months living and working in Domingo Savio, I became aware of the history of the place and eventually became quite familiar with the stories that Steve tells in Santiago’s Children.
In the 25 years that had passed since Steve’s arrival, much had changed. Domingo Savio was no longer a residential home for the children, but rather had transitioned into a community center and after-school program guided by the principle of prevention. Instead of a dozen or so children, there were instead roughly 35 who regularly attended the activities planned and implemented by the staff. And due to Steve’s continuing involvement, as well as a constant stream of foreign volunteers managed by VEGlobal, people were much less surprised by the presence of a young and idealistic “gringo” traveling thousands of miles to try and make a difference.
On the other hand, many things still remain the same. Domingo Savio still operates under the compassionate yet watchful eyes of “Mommy” Olga, who has managed to maintain the same family environment despite the increase in the number of children. Although certain renovations have been made, all of the action continues to take place in the same little house on Tupungato Street. And, on a daily basis, good intentions and larger than life expectations are still confronted with the hard-reality of this impoverished community.
Many of the central themes in Santiago’s Children strike a very resonant chord with me and my experience. The unrealistically high expectations that I brought with me down to Chile have generally not been met, but strewn along the path of many failures there are also many small successes. I was not able to bring all 35 kids on a week-long outdoor leadership excursion, but because of my efforts and those of another volunteer, 9 of the children were able to escape from Santiago for an overnight camping trip. And while I may not have convinced little Connie to read The Alchemist with me, she did pass 1st grade and has even started to read for fun (and additionally she is much more capable of selecting books suitable to her reading level than I am).
But more than anything else, these small moments have had a great effect on me. I decided to extend my stay in Chile past the originally planned 6 months and will be in Latin America for another year. I still dream big dreams about what I can accomplish during the rest of my time here, but I have learned to not get discouraged when my expectations fall short, but rather to savor the small victories that periodically mark the way forward. I have come to believe that significant and sustainable change is enacted through the combination of big dreams and small steps, and furthermore I think that this holds true as much for ourselves as individuals as it does for the hard-reality of the world around us. I have even started to learn that I do indeed enjoy working with children.
My first step in this process was deciding to devote a period of my life to the service of others, and it was a small step that has brought about large changes in my life. There are many different steps and paths that can be taken, and as Steve mentioned in his last post, as long as one is guided by worthwhile principles it is hard to choose a “wrong” path. I encourage everyone to find a path that is right for you, and I invite you to share your experiences on this blog.