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

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

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

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