Below is a blog post written in June 2020 by Brittni Palkert, the Volunteer and Projects Coordinator at NPH Bolivia.
Who would have thought back in February how the world would look now? I can certainly say that when I arrived to NPH Bolivia on February 1st 2020, I had no idea what would transpire over the coming 5 months and how much my volunteer experience would dramatically shift.
My first month at the home looked like a typical NPH volunteer experience: meeting staff and children, traveling to the nearby town on Sundays for mass, off-weekend trips into the city of Santa Cruz, and planning for all the exciting holidays and events that would take place over the coming months, like our home’s 15th anniversary. Then the weekend of March 13th arrived, turning our volunteer experience on its head. Seemingly overnight, the COVID-19 pandemic became truly ‘real’ in Bolivia and within days – which felt like months at the time – the majority of our staff left the home, including my direct manager, without a specific return date in mind. The kids underwent a series of handwashing workshops and were no longer allowed to eat nor pick up food in our food hall, everyone received facemasks, and we were no longer permitted to leave the home nor receive outside visitors unless absolutely necessary. Expected visitors from NPHI cancelled their flights, and we as volunteers had to have difficult conversations with NPH Bolivia and NPH USA leadership to determine whether it was safe and appropriate to stay in the home. Ultimately, the four American volunteers decided to stay, but our greatest challenge as a community was having to say goodbye to our German volunteer who was required by his government to return home.
We’ve undergone significant changes and restrictions to keep all of our staff and children safe, but through it all we’ve managed to remain positive and see the rainbow peeking through the clouds. We’ve taken on new responsibilities and roles most volunteers have never nor will ever experience. For example, every 1-2 months when one caretaker shift leaves and another enters, all the volunteers have been asked to serve as ‘tios’ in the homes while the newly entered shift spends a week or two in quarantine. This new challenge has given us a fresh perspective on the home and the daily lives of our children, as well as the joy that comes with being closer than ever with our beautiful children. For me, one of my proudest moments as a volunteer was using my limited high school chemistry knowledge to help a few of the girls complete their 150-question chemistry homework!
On the weekends, especially if our kids are in the middle of a 2-week quarantine because the new shift of caretakers has entered, I enjoy baking or making my Grandma’s pierogi recipe. While there are many weekends where we long to take a trip to Santa Cruz, we strive to keep in mind that this is the reality for our children most of the year; they are at the home nearly 24/7 without access to stores or restaurants. Even without school, our children remain as happy as ever with the necessities provided to them at the home. This kind of inner peace and minimalism is something I hope to take with me into the future. Honestly, most days it feels like the kids are teaching me just as much as I am teaching them!
Here at NPH Bolivia, I am very lucky to be surrounded by supportive local staff and an incredible group of volunteers that are helping me remain positive. I am truly grateful to still be living in the home, particularly because our presence is needed now more than ever. In addition to being caretakers in the children’s homes, we are supporting enrichment activities in the absence of formal schooling nationwide. Our volunteer English teacher has been leading homework sessions in our computer lab, running our library and reading classes, and supporting piano practice. Two volunteers and I are working on a local fundraising campaign called #VenceAlCoronavirus to cover the cost of rising food prices, facemasks, hand sanitizer, and other unforeseen expenditures that protect the well-being of our children.
Through these triumphs and heartaches, we’ve remained centered on NPH’s mission: providing a loving and safe environment for children living in extreme conditions. Although the coronavirus pandemic is putting pressure on this mission, we have not and will not fail to continue providing safety and love to our children. NPH volunteers live and breathe this mission day in and day out, now more than ever.