My first experience of Brazil was on a backpacking trip across South America, just over two and a half years ago. Rio was the first stop and when I left I swore to myself that I would be back in this incredible city someday; I didn't know how, when or why, I just knew I would.
Then, in February 2017, I booked a flight back to Rio to see friends that I made during my first visit, this time for Carnival. It was supposed to be just a two-week holiday before starting a new job with a charity in London . . . well, that was eighteen months ago now! I just couldn't bring myself to leave. I was completely taken by Rio and without a job, nor any Portuguese or money, I decided that I would stay.
I was thinking about how much A Cidade Maravilhosa (The Marvellous City) was giving to me and I wanted to give something back. I was introduced to EduMais by a friend who also volunteered at the organization. Having worked with a children's sport and education charity back home in the UK, I thought EduMais would be a good fit. Then I met Diana and the children, got to know the charity and its projects, and realised it was exactly the kind of organization I had always wanted to be involved in.
Why? Well, the work we do at EduMais directly impacts and benefits the children. It is a charity set aside from the 'voluntourism' projects you see online. It has the grassroots feel of organizations that I have worked at previously in the UK but without the red tape and bureaucracy. Less is more in these cases, I believe.
I began teaching English twice a week. I had never taught English before and on my first day I was giving lessons! It was challenging and a steep learning curve, which I absolutely loved, though there were difficult times where I felt I couldn't deliver what these children needed. As well as teaching the children English, the lessons are a vehicle to educate them about how to respect each other, how to behave and to challenge themselves to improve both academically and personally. Looking back on when I started and those initial English classes reminds me of one occasion where their behaviour was so challenging that I was literally prepared to walk out and not come back. I was convinced I could not do it.
When I think about that and compare it to how the children are now, the progress is remarkable. I think sometimes as adults we forget what it was like to be a child; we forget that we, too, were children. I remember being a child (just about!) and misbehaving at school, and having grown older and had time to reflect I am becoming wiser as to why I did.
This empathy and understanding is at the core of what EduMais is about and that comes from Diana, the amazing woman who started it. Seeing the amount of work and dedication from one person you cannot help but become committed and emotionally invested in the project. With the patience and dedication of Diana and the other volunteers, I began to believe that I could make a significant impact and truly add benefit to EduMais and, most importantly, the children!
Like most children, the kids at EduMais are full of energy, curiosity and questions. But there are a couple of things that are remarkably different from the children I have previously worked with in the UK. Most noticeable is how tactile they are. They will often spend the class holding hands, overlapping legs, and even playing with one another's hair (the latter having its very own word in Portuguese: 'cafuné'!).
They also have a habit of talking, though I think this is just a Brazilian thing if I'm honest. This talkativeness would often lead to a room full of voices, each trying to speak louder than the other, all while a teacher would be trying to deliver a class. Now, when I was at school back home, were this to have happened a teacher's solution would have been to shout the class down. I also remember the sense of satisfaction, from a student's perspective, of seeing the teacher riled.
This is not what we do at EduMais. As teachers we lead by example, we do not raise our voice, we wait patiently for the children to realise that there is no lesson being delivered and you know what? It really works! One by one they notice that the teacher is waiting patiently, quietly and respectfully, and then one by one they quieten down and before you know it there is a classroom of eyes looking our way as if to say: "why are you not teaching us?"
Since starting over a year ago I have seen the kids come on quite a journey, not just in terms of their English skills but also their behaviour in class and attitude towards our lessons. Diana has given us volunteers the tools and skills to drive that development but the children deserve the true credit. They are all so exceptionally adaptable and open to being challenged, which is not easy at such an age. They are only going to improve as well and I am so truly excited to see how far they all go. Bright, intelligent, witty, warm, empathetic, trusting, open-minded, it is an absolute pleasure to share their company twice a week.
Having taught in the English classes for a year, I recently moved to a different project, the after-school club. We offer the children the opportunity to express themselves and how they are feeling by sharing their experiences that week and day. We learn English, have a snack (fruit!), play sport, practice art, and finish the day with free play before encouraging the children to pay one another a compliment before home time.
We also provide them with the opportunity to leave the community for the afternoon by taking them to places such as Jardim Botânico, Lagoa or the beach. Just last Wednesday we took three boys to the beach and just seeing their faces, as they relentlessly switched between repeatedly jumping in and out of the water and playing football, was more than enough reward for me.
EduMais is a theatre of learning and development, not only for the children, but for me too. I have learnt an awful lot from the children at EduMais (they have probably taught me more than I have them) and for this I can only say thank you to them, as well as to Diana, for believing in me and for the enlightening, rewarding and unique experience that is volunteering at EduMais. I will continue to try to give something back to EduMais and to this incredible city. I just don't know how I will ever leave!