So how was your AISEC project in Maceió Leander? Well, pretty difficult to be honest. It’s not that I felt unsafe or unwelcome at the NGO I was working at, even culture shock wasn’t too bad. But for the majority of the project I felt quite unfulfilled. I found it incredibly hard to teach or inspire the kids I was working with. It took a real good look at myself and quite the emotional shift before things started to change.
Volunteering in poor Brazil
I worked in an area called “Tabuleiro dos martins”, which is located in the upper part of greater Maceió. The upper part is known to be poor part of Maceió and my daily 20-min walk to the NGO from the bus stop was something that took a little while to get used to, definitely as I still looked quite “gringo” and people often gave me strange looks like “What the heck are you doing here?”. But cultural and environmental differences weren’t the real difficulties for me, it was opening myself up more that was.
Cultural and environmental differences weren’t the real difficulties for me, it was opening myself up more that was.
These kids didn’t have much, but energy is one thing they never lacked. Laughing with acrobatic activities over here.
I volunteered in an orphanage where a group of about 20 boys lived, ranging ages from 6 to 18. Our main goal was to organize educational activities. We set out to not only have intellectual activities such as learning languages and world countries, but also activities regarding personal growth such as having mutual respect and keeping good personal hygiene. Yeah, I think might have learned a thing or two myself on that last topic.
Now, my difficulty was lying in the fact that it seemed impossible get the real attention of these kids. What you should know is that most of these kids already have had a very difficult past for the age they have. In most cases, they were taken or ran away from their families because they were treated badly. Various boys had lived on the streets for a while and/or had been part of drug-trafficking environments. Some of them had tattoos already, one even on his face, or had impressive scars, not really the type you get from little accidents.
“Why should I listen to this gringo that has never been through real roughness”, I could see them thinking.
Nothing describes my days at the NGO better than this picture. Love, play, some fighting, kids running and shouting all over the place and me, trying to keep a cool head while teaching these kids new things.
So how this make things difficult? Well, their past had giving many boys quite a strong, independent and stubborn mindset. They had been in way more difficult situations in life than I had ever been in, “why should I listen to this gringo that has never been through real roughness”, I could see them thinking. Don’t get me wrong, these boys had very kind and loving sides, many coming to give a big hug the moment you arrived, but when it came to really listening to lessons or advice, they often knew better.
We were already various weeks into the project and I felt like I had reached absolutely nothing.
Me and my great co-volunteer Jazmin from Argentina had made a really nice planning with many fun and interesting activities. We we’re ready and motivated to learn these kids many new things and inspire them to make the best of their lives. We were however quickly disarmed of that energy. Just trying to get these boys together was like mission impossible. And if we managed to get the participation of a little group, half of them would be fighting or running away in minutes. It got to a point where I felt very demotivated and whatever I tried was pointless anyway. It was frustrating. We were already various weeks into the project and I had a feeling like I hadn’t reached at all what I wanted.
It was thanks to a great quote I remembered from a TED talk that things started to shift. “When you feel the need to speed up, slow down”. I had felt the need to keep pushing and just do all activities, after all we did have a great planning, after sometime that would surely inspire I thought. Well, that wasn’t exactly the case. But by being self-aware enough I saw I was just racing on without taking enough time to feel what was actually happening around me. So I slowed down to take a good and honest look at the situation, these boys and myself.
After sometime that would surely inspire I thought. Well, that wasn’t exactly the case.
Not all these kids were difficult to inspire. Without this amazing kid my experience would have been very different. Open heart, helping hand, kind mind. Saudades
The most main realization was that I should allow myself to be more emotional. These boys weren’t in need of real self-development yet, they just needed some companionship and love, people they could feel good with. Things they had been lacking all their life. It was a somewhat difficult realization as well because subconsciously I somehow abstained from expressing emotions, it was out of my comfort zone.
It was a somewhat difficult realization as well because subconsciously I somehow abstained from expressing emotions, it was out of my comfort zone.
I don’t like to get to intellectual on this topic, because it’s truly about showing emotions instead of rationalizing it, but sometimes models help you understand why being emotional is important. If you haven’t heard of the pyramid of Maslow yet, it explains human motivation fantasticly and help you in many ways. Great book on it here.
The day after my honest reflections the whole experience shifted immediately. I went in with no plan but to feel and listen to the boys, keep a positive energy and have fun. It’s funny how people pick up on your energy before you even do anything. Just walking in and greeting the boys Jazmin gave me a laughing look, “What’s up with you today? You’re acting different”. I just laughed back and said “Well yeah, let’s have some fun today”.
In the next weeks we still had some of our activities, but everything was more flexible. My main goal was to make these boys enjoy the moments we had and understanding why they were acting they did. Things were not going perfectly smooth from that moment, but that was ok. I felt more relaxed and energized while seemingly doing less. The connection with the kids improved massively as well. We laughed more, they enjoyed doing activities more and some even came up to me to share quite personal stories. I got inspired even by their energy, that young wreckless energy just keeps on giving, they are like lightning bolts hurling around. It empowered me when i opened up to it instead of wanting to control it.
I just laughed back and said “Well yeah, let’s have some fun today”.
These two guys were might seem very calm and kind here, but they were absolute little devils. Love them for their energy though.
I learned there’s an awesome power in honestly expressing your emotions. I became a truer version of me, who can be more confident of myself. I do not hide or make excuses for feeling a certain way but take it as a part of who I am. I think it’s important however to be aware of your emotions and understand where they come from. By consciously accepting and letting them be you can actually draw lots of energy from them. Thanks to opening up emotionally, I feel stronger, more relaxed and energized. I think you also energize others more by open emotional expression. I still have things to learn in being emotional, but this Brazilian experience has definitely pushed me in a good direction. Valeu!