Why I chose to volunteer with Edumais and what I've learned from the experience, by long-term volunteer Nikola
I stumbled upon Edumais when delving into the abyss of volunteering opportunities in South America. I had backpacked in South America three years earlier and Brazil speciﬁcally had left a very strong impression on me. I had recently left my finance job in London, moved back to my parents, and had a short experience volunteering in Greece to aid in the Syrian refugee crisis. I was looking for a change but not constant change. My backpack was no longer calling me. I wanted to give back and stay long enough in a place to be able to partake in something meaningful.
Feeling strongly about not participating in a voluntourism project, I found it difficult to find genuine projects that didn’t charge you according to your length of time there, nor that didn't include the price of airport transfers. Projects where your needs and wants weren’t the focus but the needs and wants of people who deserve more from life.
I came across Edumais while browsing an interesting comments section of a post about volunteerism in South America and it resonated immediately. At the time I was reading a psychology book where the focus was on rationalising people’s behaviour. There was a chapter on children and Positive Discipline, separating reason from action. I found this fascinating, so when I came across the post that mentioned Positive Discipline as Edumais's core philosophy, it almost sang my name.
Edumais was exactly what I was looking for: a grassroots group that didn’t have the bureaucracy of a large organisation. Needs were assessed by volunteers on the ground not people sat in an office. One look at Edumais and you can see it has one key focus: improving the lives of children in three communities in Rio de Janeiro, not just through education, but with behavioural skills and mental well-being also.
I sent in my application with a letter of motivation, which led to a Skype meeting with Diana, the director. Instantly, I could see that Diana was completely dedicated to the cause of improving the lives of the children and young adults within the community with no ulterior motives. I was happy to ﬁnd an organisation where the input of the volunteers directly correlated to the outputs received.
My skill-set, motives and previous experiences were assessed. Each volunteer is positioned in a place in the charity to optimise their current skills. As Edumais is a not-for-profit, volunteers are expected to cover their costs while in Brazil.
How did I feel about going to Rio de Janeiro to teach English with only a TEFL and no Portuguese language to my name? I was excited, nervously, I was nervously excited!
The school Solar Meninos de Luz (children of the light) in itself is quite unique, sitting at the foothill of three favelas nestled between Copacabana and Ipanema. There is one class per year group, from the smallest of the small in nursery (adorably cute) to the teens bordering on adulthood at nineteen, which heralds a strong sense of community. The children receive three meals a day and are at school from morning through to late afternoon, rather than half a day as in the government schools.
With a dedicated group of volunteers we delivered English classes to the school (this is but one of a variety of different projects). These classes were short (thirty minutes) and fast-paced. The children are naturally curious (they are not afraid to ask plenty of questions!), big bundles of energy with huge personalities. I will never forget those smiles.
As the children are easily distracted the classes are rapid. Behaviour is a huge focus. I quickly found that a behavioural trait that they have inherited is the loudest voice gets heard the most, which is something we were taught not to validate in the behavioural discipline training we received. I learnt a lot about my own reaction to behaviour and why children act the way they do, which previously I would have put into the large bracket of simply ‘naughty’. We were taught to lead by example, to be patient and kind, but ultimately firm.
After sometime, I was asked to lead a different project. This was to be the sole teacher to a group of teenagers from the community that were not members of Solar but members of local government schools. Straightaway, I thought of the negatives of my own behaviour as a teenager (rebellious), with a combination of language barriers and hormones. Hesitant, I took on the challenge.
I have now had this class for over a year and, without wanting to sound cliché, it has honestly been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Recently, someone with vast experience of international charity work sat in on my English class and told me that it had the highest level of English that he had experienced in any other volunteer class in Rio de Janeiro. Tears filled my eyes. I felt incredibly proud not just of myself but of my kids. One of the main reasons I respect these kids so much is that, instead of going home after attending their local high school, they choose to come to my class, which makes all the difference. In turn, I really believe I have earned their respect too. It didn’t come easily but it has been more than worth it.
I personally plan and design the lessons according to my students' needs and interests. But, as any teacher knows, no amount of planning can foresee exactly how a class will go and I hope they don't realise when I'm thinking on my feet at the front of the class! Teaching them has enhanced my Portuguese, leading to a dual learning experience. At first, I often needed my teaching assistant of Google translate but now I only check the odd word through class. My kids are more than understanding and are as patient with me as I am with them.
When I first joined I was aware that the students came from a less fortunate background than myself. Now, this isn’t at the forefront of my mind. Often, it is only when I explain to others about the project that this becomes the main focus. I see myself as giving a skill that I have to another group who actively want and deserve this skill. Personally, I have grown as a person and challenged a lot of my internal ego. I still have a long way to go but I’m now further on my way thanks to Edumais.