The Least of These: Buenos Aires (Pt. 2)

Yesterday I had a chance to do some humanitarian work with an organization called Luchemos para una Infancia Feliz y Con Esperanza — otherwise known as LIFE Argentina. I had heard of a couple poker players who’d volunteered with LIFE and it seemed to be popular in the expat community. I wanted to complement the online research I’d done on poverty in Buenos Aires by actually seeing the slums firsthand. (Skip to the photos if you’re in a hurry).

LIFE keeps volunteers busy all week long in a variety of capacities in various spots around BsAs. Saturdays they go to Villa 15, more popularly known as Ciudad Oculta (“Hidden City”) because of the walls built around this slum to keep them invisible from society at large. It’s located about 15 kilometers from where I live in Congreso. There are thought to be at least 16,000 people in this shantytown, though I’m sure that number’s largely unverifiable. LIFE’s director told me last week that he estimates 20% of these residents are semi-legitimately employed, 40% are under-employed, and 40% really do absolutely nothing.

The particular part of the slum we went to is right in front of an abandoned half-built hospital, the detritus of past efforts to clean up and normalize the area. The hospital was about 10 floors high, but the place is only occupied up to the 3rd floor. Anything higher is inaccessible because the government destroyed the stairs over worries that the whole building would collapse. This villa was a lot like other shantytowns I’ve seen around the world: dirt roads, tiny concrete houses, stolen electricity & pirated cable, obvious signs of entropy at every point.

Our plan was to do a “cooking class” with the slum kids, sticking to really simple stuff and just trying to give the kids something productive to do with their hands. Last week was oatmeal cookies (which seems like a bizarre choice), but this time we brought, by popular request, pizza-making supplies. The kids mobbed us as soon as we got out of the car and were eager to begin “cooking” by throwing all the fresh ingredients on the pizza dough. Our pizzas were piled high with cheese, ham, mushrooms, peppers, onions, and pineapple — very atypical for BsAs fare.

This part didn’t take too long of course, so most of the time was just playing with the kids and trying to love them by just being there. I’ve never hated my poor Spanish as much as then, but fortunately you don’t need good language skills to chase, swing, carry, or tickle kids. Obviously the best part was when we grabbed a futbol and had a series of Argentina vs. Estados Unidos matches, though the games were delightfully hampered by cute toddlers running amok.

There were only a total of 5 LIFE volunteers, and we had a bit of a scare at the end when we were unable to find one girl. It was pretty impressive how fast the villa adults mobilized; they really prize our presence there (“LIFE shirts are safer than bullet-proof vests,” the saying goes). Turns out the girl was just in one house chatting with some ladies and trying (succeeding?) in buying some weed. Group consensus was that this was A Very Questionable Idea.

It was definitely a good experience and the kids were very cute and lively. We accomplished very little tangibly, but hopefully these children had a happier Saturday than they might’ve otherwise. Some of these volunteers come every Saturday, so over time you can really build up relationships and invest in the kids lives.

Again, photos can be found at Flickr.

Lastly, one quick note about LIFE Argentina. This group seems to be doing excellent work, and have done so for a number of years. I commend their efforts to alleviate the sting of poverty in the poorest parts of Buenos Aires — and indeed, even up in the northern province of Misiones. However, I was kind of uncomfortable with several aspects while volunteering with LIFE. Chief among these concerns is money, and I think it’s worth mentioning in the interest of full disclosure. Unlike most groups in the USA, you have to pay to volunteer with LIFE… and this sets up all sorts of weird situations. If you volunteer between 1-14 days, it costs US$25; more than two weeks and it’s US$50. You also pay for transportation on the day you go — AR$25 when going to Ciudad Oculta for example. It’s further complicated because you have LIFE interns, occasional volunteers, and more full-time volunteers who fly into the country expressly in order to work with LIFE. This gets confusing when, for example, I receive e-mails stating that volunteers are now required to help out around the office twice a week — or that there are fines for signing up to work but being unable to come (perhaps because of sickness, such as in my case last week). Point is, money is talked about a lot around LIFE, and talked about in very employer-employee terms, despite the convoluted nature of the actual relationship. The problem is not with the act of giving money to a charity — it’s how & why that money was given, even assuming the use of the funds is completely on the up-and-up.

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