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Working to give a sliver of hope

The town lays 13 miles from a bus stop or anything seemingly remotely significant. I rode in the back of a pickup truck while getting pulverized by the dry dusty air swept up as we flew down the dirt roads that wove through the farms that stretched on and on.

I was heading to Montefiore, a small farming hub of 100 people, 20 homes, one street and a school, to volunteer with a group of Argentines at the town’s school. The goal of this trip was to establish a level of familiarity with the children through games and other relaxing activities, so that the Argentines I was traveling with could  return to the town to teach the children other lessons about hygiene and health, mentally and physically.

I had experience both with volunteer work and working with children; but nothing similar to the work I was going to do in this town.

Argentina has a large divide between the lives of those in the cities and those of the campos, the rural regions of the country. While the cities are often world class hubs, whose suburbs resemble any number of wealthy countries around the world, travelling to the campos is often the literal trip back in time. A parasitic disease called Mal de Chagas is the leading cause of death in the entire country with an infection rate of around 60 percent of those in the campos. Streetlights were just put into the town a few weeks ago. Cattle graze on the soccer field. People travel by horse or jalopy.

Teenage pregnancy is immensely common in the town, with a large percentage of children dropping out of school to take care of families around age 13. According to the children themselves, most people start drinking beer regularly around eight years old. The beacon of light and the source of life and importance in the town is the four-room school that I was volunteering at for the weekend.

The school provides an alternative for children to work under the table on the many surrounding farmlands. Children are brought from farms as far as 50 miles away as their parents try to give them some gateway to better their lives beyond basic survival. The school provides food, books and a sense of awareness about a world outside of the campo life.

Over the three days that we were there, we played games with the children, sat and listened to stories about their lives and shared tales of places that seem uncomprehendingly exotic to the children. Eventually, the children hung around the school with us even when we didn’t have activities planned. If only to just sit with us and smile.

The second night of our stay, we had a bonfire and a large number of the parents showed up to share in the festivities. We sang campfire songs and played games as the children had a carefree day of play which would otherwise be spent working on the fields. Additionally, we read notes that we had the children write. One which struck a chord to me was a reference to a line I ad-libbed in a skit we performed. The line, telling someone to have confidence (spoken with my horrible Spanish accent) became a running joke through the skits we put on that weekend. Several children’s notes said that they were going to have confidence.

As we left the town, parents cried and thanked us profusely for taking the time to notice their little corner of the world, to care about their future. The children hugged us and thanked us. A group of older boys wrote love poems (albeit with poor spelling) to the girls on my trip, showing an incredible thing to me. A desire to use writing to get ahead and what they desire in the world.

As we headed back to the bus, one of the Argentines I came with was crying. She just couldn’t stand the thought that no matter how much good we did on our trip, it would amount to little more than nothing in so many of these children’s lives. That the odds stacked up against them were so steep, so overwhelming: a government that chooses to keep them in ignorance with little funding, an economy that takes advantage of them, horrible living conditions and a host of bad societal influences all around them.

I told her even if our contribution, our showing these children of another way of life, of believing in them, amounted to little more than nothing, it was still more than nothing. More than what they had before. That any sliver of hope, any percentage that their life would better was something worth fighting for, worth any amount of effort.

As our bus pulled out of the nearby town, for the trip back to Buenos Aires, I looked at a clock tower in the town’s center. It said under the clock face, “Esta es la hora de hacer el bien.”

This is the hour to do the good.

Mike Fox is a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at mgfox@student.umass.edu.

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