Volunteering with Armonia to Help the Poor, Mexico
Naomi Wood (2011, English)
Last summer, at the end of my gap year, I set out to Mexico to volunteer for a month with Armonia, an organization working with the poor in Mexico. It was an amazing month, in which I met many incredible people and learnt a great deal. On hearing that I was planning on returning to Mexico this year, several of my friends expressed surprise that I did not want to ‘do’ a new country instead of returning to a place I had already visited. But for me, my time with Armonia was special because of the relationships I had built and the vision of the organization, both of which I was keen, and continue to be keen, to support.
Before I begin an account of my time this year, it is worth taking a brief moment to explain the vast work of Armonia. The charity was begun 30 years ago by Saul and Pilar Cruz, a Mexican couple who were doing extremely well in the pharmaceutical business. But as they saw the poverty of many living in their country, they realized that the demands of their Christian faith meant they were unable to ignore the problem they saw. They sold their house and cars and went to live in the populous city of Oaxaca, based in the southern mountains in which many of the indigenous people of Mexico live. Since that time, Armonia has set up a now self supporting school for children with special needs, runs three community centres in Mexico City, holds annual clinics in the remote indigenous villages of Oaxaca and, at the centre of the vision for the organization, runs the AIMS programme. The Armonia Indigenous Mexican Students programme helps academically able students from indigenous villages to gain a secondary and then university education, who would otherwise have been unable to continue education past the age of 14. These students have often been taught solely through the use of video tapes. Armonia has a large residence in the city of Oaxaca in which about 45 teenagers live while studying at the local school, responsible for their own school work and managing the house. Once the students have finished school, they spend a year helping at the residence as ‘older brothers and sisters’ before applying for university scholarships. Their ability and above all, their application, mean there are many amazing success stories of students from very humble backgrounds studying at top universities, as well as of course, the inevitable sadness of students who do not manage to gain competitive scholarship places. Students are encouraged to use their educational opportunities for the good of others, and especially their own villages – it is touching to see Leo for example, a cheeky, strong 18 year old boy, wishing to study social work so he can return to his village to meet the need he sees there.
It was thus that I ended up at Heathrow Airport on August 17, trying to spot two girls who I had only met once before. The team had been organised by my church in my home town of Newcastle, where the other two girls, Jill and Sarah, are studying. After a long flight to Mexico City, we were met at the airport by Lupe, an engineering student through the AIMS programme, and taken to one of the Armonia houses in Mexico City. There we also met Emma, a medical student doing her elective for a month in Mexico, and AIMS students Irene, Chicho and the extremely musically talented Sergio (studying at the top music school in Mexico after picking up the clarinet aged 15). Each of these became firm friends for the rest of the trip. We had expected to stay in Mexico City for a week, but Armonia, embracing the rich culture of Mexico, also embraces the prevalent attitude to timing and planning, meaning we spent much of the trip being told the plans were now going to take place immediately instead of tomorrow, or next week instead of this one! So we ended up setting off to Oaxaca the second day we had arrived.
The next two weeks were spent at the AIMS student residence. It was not entirely as we had expected! We would wake up to have breakfast with the students at 5.30 (4 if you were on the team preparing breakfast) and then crawl back into bed for a couple of hours as the students headed off to school. We would then help out with whatever tasks needed doing. We did some construction on the new residence that is being built, cleaned the maggots out of the kitchen bin, catalogued thousands of pairs of glasses for the clinic that was being held the week after and made inventories of the medicines. It was largely unglamourous work! But while we were doing this, we also built great and, I hope, long lasting relationships with many of the Mexicans we met. We were helped throughout the day by older students and when the others returned in the late afternoon, we would help with their English homework, sing together, play sport and chat. Saul and Pilar arrived and, as the house needed fumigating, took the whole group to the cinema followed by McDonald’s. We had three cakes for the three birthdays that week and sang Mexican birthday songs as enthusiastically as we could!
At the end of the second week, the team for the clinic arrived. We had heard nothing about this clinic until we had arrived, in the typically relaxed attitude to information and timetables! The team members were mostly from the United States, with a few from the UK and Mexico, and consisted of doctors, an optomologist, physiotherapist and pharmacist, as well as some general helpers. They were an amazing group of people who we felt very loved by and loved in return. Many of them had come out multiple times, one for more than 26 years. The first clinic ran in the city of Oaxaca itself. We turned up at a community building, unpacked everything and started off straight away. That day I helped to translate for the optomologist, which was very scary given my limited Spanish! My enduring memory from that day was a young girl with eyesight of -16, far over what is counted as legally blind in the UK. She already had glasses, but these were only a -10 prescription, and we had little hope that we would have a pair of child’s glasses that would fit such an extreme prescription. Her mother cried when she was told that there was no operation that could fix her child’s eyes and there was a high probability of it getting worse. The girl herself could not really understand and smiled away as I entertained her so she would sit still during the examination. But what a smile when the glasses team found a pair of glasses with -14 prescription! Her joy was instantaneously clear, with no words at all.
The next morning we headed to Yalawi, the village where Irene, by then our constant companion, came from. The drive up through the mountains was breathtaking. The sheer size and beauty of it all meant that the 8 hours passed very quickly! Again, we set up quickly and were off to work. We met many beautiful people, some of whom did not speak any Spanish or had ever left the village. We slept on the floor of Irene’s house, whose family had moved out to sleep with other families so we would have space, and cooked on a wooden stove under a shelter that the village had prepared specially for us. The days we spent there were very busy, as people walked hours from neighbouring villages. The nearest clinic to Yalawi is approximately four hours walk away, but it has not had a doctor there for six months. I was mainly based helping in the pharmacy. Much of what was prescribed was simple medication for worms or pain relief that we could buy in a supermarket. But for many of these remote villages, Ibuprofen or Paracetamol is completely inaccessible. It was hard work – one day I worked from eight in the morning until eleven at night with two hours for lunch and half an hour for dinner. But we were encouraged not only by what we were doing but also by the hard work of the Mexican students who had accompanied us. When I thought six was early to get up for breakfast, Gama had got up an hour before so we could have hot water to shower with, or when I was tired of transporting glasses, Leo was running up and down the stairs with five boxes balanced on his head!
Our final clinic was held back in the student residence in Oaxaca. It was very quiet in comparison, which was a relief for everyone! Once it had ended the US team took all of the students out for a meal in a beautiful restaurant. It was a lovely way to end the clinics. We all had lots of fun in the plane in the restaurant’s gardens, as well as eating a massive Mexican buffet. By then I had had my fill of black beans but was well able to enjoy the rest! The next morning we said goodbye to the students at the residence. It was so sad to leave but I am very excited to hear about what many of them go on to do. Elsa wants to study medicine, Gama wants to be an architect, Sarah loves literature and wants to be a teacher. They have bright futures ahead of them that would be unimaginable without the help of Armonia.
Our final few days were spent in the small coastal town of Puerto Escondido – from which, incidentally, I am writing this report! Irene had never been to the beach before – in fact had never been out of the region of Oaxaca apart from to Mexico City. After all the work she had done with us, we thought it only right that she should relax with us too, so we invited her with us and are loving seeing her enjoying the beach for the first time. It has also been great not to separate this tourist part of the trip from the people we have met and the amazing work we have seen. The chance to relax and reflect has also been much appreciated. There are definitely no breakfasts at 5.30am here!
Some of this month has been tough, physically and emotionally. It has also been frustrating at times, especially at the rate plans change. It has not been at all what I expected – I expected to be doing more kids work as I did last time, and as the students were at school, I did not spend as much time with them as I would have liked. But it has also been an amazing month. The people I have met have been an inspiring example about how to love and serve wholeheartedly. The pattern of Armonia, of how to transform communities through their own culture and people, seems to me both beautiful and effective. It has not always been easy but I am so glad I was able to return to Mexico, to get to know my old friends better and grow new friendships.
For all of this, I must express sincere thanks to the Trinity Hall Alumni Association for their generous grant, which has helped to relieve the considerable financial burden of this trip. I feel very honoured to have been a recipient of this award, especially in light of the sad news of the passing away of Dennis Avery this year. I hope that through this trip a little has been reflected of Dennis’s evident love and compassion for those in need.