Plans to travel south are typically aimed at lounging on white sandy beaches, indulging in much needed vegetation and other similar touristic aspirations, but for a valiant group of seven Central Alberta university students and professionals, southern plans in the month of May revolved mainly around humanitarian work.
A Better World Canada (ABW) is a Lacombe-based, volunteer-led non-profit organization that was founded in 1990 by Eric Rajah and Brian Leavitt. Through the Tomorrow’s Edge branch, which focuses on students and youth humanitarian work, the seven travelled between May 22 and June 2 assisting two orphanages, as well as a health care shelter in whatever ways they could.
“It is my passion to help people, which might explain my career choices to become an Emergency Medical Technician as well as a firefighter,” says Rob Weich, Team Leader and Operations Manager for A Better World. He was accompanied by Heidi Lehmann, Trip Coordinator and principal of Prairie Adventist Christian School, Angela McKenna, a social worker, Scott Tataryn, a farmer, Earl Tews, owner of construction company Upstairs Downstairs, Jessica Hall, student of Psychology and Religious Studies at Canadian University College, and Luke Edgson, Medical student at Loma Linda University.
Bolivia, bordered by Brazil, Peru, Chile, Argentina, and Paraguay, is one of the most remote countries in the western hemisphere and is the most indigenous in the Americas with 60% of its population being of pure Native American (Quechua or Aymara) ancestry. A Better World has been active in the country for 8 years with a number of projects that it supports by providing labour assistance, advice as appropriate, or financial help.
“The goal is to foster a closer working relationship with the projects, understand their needs and to create more awareness of the needs that are being faced on a daily basis in Bolivia,” says Weich. The work that they have done at the various locations include installing window screens, painting, fixing showers and washing machines, repairing motorcycles, teaching English at a local school, and providing the much-craved human touch that the children of the orphanages yearn for; nothing a simple game of volleyball or soccer can’t satisfy.
CERENID is a home for boys who have come off the streets of Santa Cruz and are looking for a way to improve their lives” Weich Explains. “These boys have taken to the streets as a means of survival from a life of poverty, a life of abuse, or even their own families. Becoming involved with gangs and drugs is an all too real reality for these children in an attempt to face the trials before them”. One of the hardest days was when they had to depart this orphanage because the group had children hanging from their arms not wanting them to leave.
They did, however, have to continue on and their journey soon led them to Acion Medica Bolivia (AMe Bolivia), the local health organization consisting of two shelters that cater to mental and physical disabilities; patients there are usually those who can no longer remain at the hospital and yet have no family or home to return to.
With such a wide spectrum of need, one cannot help but wonder what these experiences meant to the participants. Some have shared the following:
Marthe: What were your expectations going into the trip?
Angela: I wanted to see the differences in lifestyle, meet people, build relationships, and get to see the projects that I’ve been working on from Canada with ABW.
Marthe: What had the most impact on you and why?
Jessica: AMe made a profound impact on me. To see the loving and caring environment was truly touching. Since medical care in Bolivia is expensive, Gheorghe [AMe’s director] and his team seek to help those who want to help themselves, but simply don’t have the support system or means. I met some wonderful and beautiful people in those shelters, and you could just tell that they were grateful and happy that someone – even a whole organization – would come alongside them to be their support system. I saw Jesus’ love and mercy running through that place.
Scott: Meeting Gheorghe; the guy defies description; if you go to just to meet him, it’s money well spent.
Marthe: How did your skills come in handy during the trip?
Scott: I guess I am comfortable trying and doing anything. Welding, like I did for AME, carpentry, mechanics, having experiences with everything comes in handy.
Marthe: What was the most challenging aspect of the trip for you?
Scott: Missing my family is definitely up there. Also, I’m not a real touchy-feely people-person kind of guy, so walking through the shelters and having people wanting to reach out and touch you, that’s beyond my comfort zone; I can talk to them, but the comfort zone and personal space, that’s great for Jessica.
Rob: Language barriers. You speak English they speak Spanish. There was a patient there that spoke only Quechua and no one else there did so even our translators couldn’t help us.
Marthe: What would you say to someone who might think that the money spend by the team in getting there could have simply been sent down to the organizations and used just to hire local hands to get the work done and to buy supplies.
Heidi: We need to invest in people… And that can only be done by travelling and getting together. ” People” investments are created though contact.
Marthe: I know this is not your first trip of the sort, Heidi. Based on your experience, can one ever truly be ready for such journeys?
Heidi: I think you can be ready by being willing, being open to new ideas, paradigms and concepts. You need your state of mind to be ready
Marthe: What advice would you give to someone considering such a trip?
Angela: You should go. It’s an experience that will change your perspective on life and help you realize the need out there.
Scott: Go and try everything. Just immerse yourself in it. Dive in with both feet; no preconceived ideas. Bring an open mind and you’re gonna experience everything. Get to know the people and the culture.
Most of the team returned home to Canada on Monday June 2, but Weich remained in Bolivia for a few more days; his goal was to establish a relationship with volunteer firefighters there and to donate time and training. He confesses that, “oftentimes the locals touch the lives of visitors more than the reverse” and adds that, “each visit genders more excitement than the first.”
The work of A Better World in Bolivia is ongoing and the yearly trips to visit, monitor, assess, and assist are open to all. To find out more about how to partake, support, or to simply to learn about A Better World’s other International humanitarian projects please contact Rob Weich at email@example.com
“To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world.”
– Heather Cortez