Helping Hands

Volunteering at a Children’s Shelter in Mexico

by Lynne Simpson

Upon receiving my degree in global studies from UCSB last year, I decided to move abroad and put to use what I had learned. Three months after college I hopped a plane to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to live, work, and practice my Spanish. I had succeeded in doing the minimum of this objective for the first three months of what became a seven-month stay, but somehow was not feeling complete in my quasi-assimilation and cultural research. I knew that volunteering would help me to meet more of the local community, but I wasn’t sure how to go about becoming a volunteer. An opportunity arose during the first week of December when I found out about a gift donation taking place via the U.S. nonprofit organization Toys for Tots. I soon accompanied other volunteers to the nearby children’s shelter known as Refugio Infantil Santa Esperanza (RISE)/Children’s Shelter of Hope ( where I helped distribute gifts to the kids as both parties happily lapped up the attention from one another. It felt great, my first true humanitarian effort, and I immediately envisioned the remaining months of my time abroad from a different perspective.

I returned to the shelter sporadically throughout the next few weeks, slowly advancing my Spanish-language proficiency by initiating small talk over dirty dishes and wrinkled laundry. Once I had names down and had proven myself as a trustworthy volunteer — meaning I was willing to pitch in on the chores so as to relieve the older kids of washing and drying an endless pile of dirty dishes on their own, and being able to sustain half-day-long soccer games intermixed with tag — I realized that I wasn’t making all of the cultural advances anymore; instead of asking questions like, “What is it about jalapeños?” I was answering questions like, “How big is Mickey Mouse in person?” Within weeks I was visiting the house on a more regular basis, greeted every time without fail by a flurry of hugs and immediately joining in on the events of the afternoon.

The shelter houses an average of 45 children who are in need of housing and care. They range in age from infants to young adults; currently the youngest is seven months and the oldest 13 years. Care is provided for any amount of time that their families are not able to provide for them. There are several children whose primary guardians are either in jail, deceased, or involved in prostitution. These children will likely live in the shelter until young adulthood, at which point they are able to leave in search of employment and other housing. Guardians who are not involved in illicit activity are often exhausted by other underprivileged realities, and use the organization for temporary means. Catholic nuns live on the grounds, as well as several paid staff members who work with the different age groups. Volunteers from all over the world help tie the loose ends, performing miscellaneous chores such as bathing, feeding, changing diapers, and cleaning the facility. Local visitors also frequent the facility regularly throughout the year.

Like most nonprofit organizations, aggregate income comes directly from donated funding. The fourth annual RISE fundraiser was held on February 18 this year. Hosted by an American board of foundation affiliates based out of Portland, Oregon, the event included live and silent auctions, locally donated food and beverage, raffle and door prizes, live entertainment including a choral performance by the children, shelter-affiliated merchandise sales, and handcrafted arts; my designated committee position became craft leader.

Homework and laundry set aside, every visit became dedicated to making something special for the guests who would be donating their time and money to benefit the shelter. As a group, we colored, cut, and pasted cards, decorated pencils, and crafted bracelets, necklaces, and belts. We painted coffee filters for butterfly wings attached to wooden clothespins. The children learned how to sew by making colorful lace table-runners. They got messy with papier-mâché while making decorative piñatas. Handheld fans, bookmarks with pictures of the kids glued and tied with ribbon, corn-husk angels dusted with glitter — you name it, we spent hours each day hanging out and getting crafty. This was the most productive bonding time that I had with the kids during my entire time at the shelter, and when it came to sell the craft work to raise money for the cause, I knew that something really special had happened. Overall we raised $32,000 (U.S. dollars), enough to sustain the shelter for more than six months.

Volunteering is a unique experience that allows one to understand something atypical to one’s own existence; everyone involved in the cause is privileged with an awareness of a life lived differently. I learned a lot about how to work with underprivileged families, and how to motivate myself as well as others to respond to such a lack of opportunity.

The children at RISE are educated, healthy, and happy. There is no doubt that they leave the shelter with more than what they have coming into it. It is a sad situation to a degree, but overall it is the best thing that has ever happened to them.

When choosing to move abroad, I made a point to have as few expectations as possible. My only goal was to become a part of the community, make myself known to the people of Mexico as someone interested in their culture, and to allow them to understand my own. With many successes and failures at this attempt throughout my stay, volunteering at RISE was by far my greatest accomplishment.

How You Can Help Click HERE for a complete list of volunteer organizations that need your help.

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