Volunteering in Sucre, Barrio Japón

This piece was written by Aurélie, a French volunteer, who describes her experience in the library of the ‘Barrio Japón’, and gives some tips for future volunteers. 

I was a volunteer for nearly 2 months at the library of Barrio Japón. It is a poor area in the suburb of Sucre, easily accessible by bus in approximately 20 minutes from the city center.

The library is quite small: two small classrooms (one for the youngest kids, one for the eldest), a main room with 5 shelving units containing all the books, and a small IT room including 3 PCs. There is also a bathroom and a luminous patio outside which can be used for games on a sunny day (though many dogs pass by, but they’re harmless).

As for the kids, their number, gender and age will vary everyday. Hence the difficulty of planning activities suitable for all, either small or large group. Some really do come everyday, some others show up twice a week, or every 2 weeks, or even just for the last 20 minutes (the library opens Monday to Friday from 2.30pm until 5.30pm).

Most of them come from step-families, and have attention, hygiene or discipline issues due to their education or complicated life at home. It’s important to keep patience and to remain understanding and tactful. A typical afternoon consists in opening at 2.30pm and checking that all kids register in a notebook for Biblioworks’ records. After that, it’s homework time until 4pm, so we help them, check that their do it seriously (especially as some parents think they only play at the library, and also because there is a tutoring center nearby where they could send them to instead). Those who don’t have any homework, or have already finished it can read.

At 4pm, we take a short break and go outside so they can eat a bit and have some fresh air, and the last hour and a half can be used for activities, tutoring the PCs’ use (they love Paint, copying texts in Word and watching educational CD-roms), playing games. This of course depends of the number of kids present, their age, if they’ve all finished their homework… It can be very demanding to watch them all when there are 15 children spread over the 4 rooms, some being always distracted from their homework, some not understanding how to solve divisions, some asking how to use Paint, some asking for a pencil or if they can go to the toilet…

I guess the best, which I haven’t managed to do, would be to come up with a fixed activity schedule to attract kids to come (or come back). But keep in mind you may not have time or sufficient number of kids to stick to the plan. Also, you need to know that there are many games, toys and puzzles in the library, that of course the kids prefer to books, so it’s a challenge to promote reading, especially with the noise the kids can create, and the fact that they cannot borrow books to read at home.

The first steps are a bit hazardous: as the kids know that each month comes a new volunteer, not knowing them and not knowing the rules applied before, with a level in Spanish more or less good, so they sometimes try to take advantage of it, by asking things they know are not allowed (like taking material or books home, using the computers before 4:30 pm…).

My main tip is to be firm right from the start so that you are respected. Ask for “hello”, “please”, “thank you” and don’t let them help themselves in the stationary shelf or play loudly before 4pm. I would say these are the most basics but most important rules. If you apply them, you will really enjoy the best side of these kids and help them in the best conditions possible.

Though this experience was been challenging, I have really enjoyed the contact with these authentic and spontaneous kids. Some have really touched my heart and I do hope the best for them. I can only wish I have had a small impact in their life just like they did in mine.

– Aurélie