by: Robin Sale
In 2010, I decided to move from Melbourne, Australia to La Paz, Bolivia. My fiancé, Ana, had been offered a job in La Paz and I couldn’t resist joining her in a place I had never been and, to be honest, knew little about.
We landed in La Paz with my few works of Spanish, few ideas about Bolivia and even fewer friends. Well, I actually knew absolutely no one who lived there. I had a feeling, driving down the steep streets of La Paz on the way from the airport to El Centro that the next chapter of my life would be very different from anything that had gone before it.
Within a week, Ana had begun work, leaving me to figure out the multitude of challenges that face a non-Spanish speaker alone in La Paz -- from getting around the city, to buying milk at the local shop. After a couple of weeks, I began Spanish classes and volunteering at Club Bolivar, a professional football club. The club wanted to further its social reach while giving back to the community. I started to research potential partner organisations in La Paz, and continually the name Kaya Children International would pop up on my screen.
A week after emailing Kaya, and with Ana enlisted as a translator; I jumped on a mini bus and headed south to the Zona Sur. I was somewhat apprehensive about visiting Kaya; I was not sure exactly what I was in for.
I vividly remember my first visit to Kaya, the front gates, and the view of the mountains, the warm welcome, and the interested looks from the children. Most of all, I remember my confusion in trying to understand the rapid-fire Spanish of Carla. And so I began to visit, twice or three times a week, to help Carla with a football program.
My first impressions of the young people at Kaya were that they were tough. I was also taken aback at the age of some. They were too young, I thought, to have been living on the streets. However, living in the centre of La Paz, it became clear very quickly that there were a lot of young people living and working on the streets. I could not imagine the mental fortitude that it must take to survive on the streets of La Paz for just one night, yet for so many young people, the street was their home.
My visits to Kaya quickly became the highlight of my week. Although I am a horrible football player, and the altitude meant I could barely run, I enjoyed playing with the children, and I’m sure they enjoyed playing against me! I soon realised that there was nothing different about the young people at Kaya. They had the same interests and aspirations as other young people anywhere in the world. Although I could still understand very little Spanish, my visits gave me the opportunity to observe other aspects of the children and staff at Kaya. I noticed how well the children took care of one another, how much the workers cared for and respected the children and the familial atmosphere that engulfed me as soon as I walked through the front gates.
One of the highlights of my time in Bolivia was the day that the players from Club Bolivar visited Kaya. Although I was severely limited in the work I could do while at the Club due to the language barrier, I was proud that I had played a small part in organising the visit. There were many smiles that day, and just thinking about it now, sitting in an office back in Australia, brings a smile to my face.
After six months of living in Bolivia, visas struggles meant we needed to leave. Although I was happy that I would see my family again, I soon realised that I would be saying goodbye to another. When I told one child at Kaya that I was leaving. He asked me “why?” I told him that I was going to see my family and he looked me very seriously in the eyes and responded, “That’s good. Family comes before everything.” It is something that I will always remember.
My time in Bolivia deeply changed me and my outlook on life. I learned so many things from my experiences and from the Kaya kids. One of the biggest things that I took out of my time with Kaya was that I loved working with young people. Although I worked as an environmental consultant for a year after returning to Australia, I have now begun a career as a youth worker. I work with at-risk and vulnerable young people in Canberra who are often homeless or at risk of homelessness, and I love it. Young people, no matter where they are in the world, just need to be in an environment in which they can flourish and grow. Kaya provide this, and my time there made me realise that we can all help in some way to provide this environment.
I often reflect on my time in Bolivia and I look forward to the day that I can come and visit my Kaya family again.