By Colin Murphy, AVSI-USA Project Officer for Latin America
On April 18, 2022, a group of AVSI supporters, their family members, and a few AVSI-USA staff set out on a “Come & See” trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to visit the Crecemos DIJO Center. The trip was a long time coming. It was originally scheduled for October 2020. Now, 18 months later, it was finally happening. Yet, after two years in a world substantially changed by the pandemic, some of us couldn’t help but wonder if we should be taking this trip at all.
As I boarded the plane in DC, many questions were swimming around my head. Why go? What value does it provide? What am I going to learn there that I can’t learn on a video call? Am I really helping the kids who go to the Center by going there to visit them? Am I not being a burden to them? Could I not take the money I would spend on the trip and just donate it to the Center instead? Perhaps I’ve grown timid in the pandemic. Perhaps so much talk of death has made me more coldly pragmatic with my decisions. Whatever the reason for them, these questions were very much on my mind as we arrived in Monte Alban, the poor neighborhood of Oaxaca where Crecemos assists children and their families with a holistic program that includes nutrition, education reinforcement, sports, and music.
The beauty of a work like Crecemos is that it very quickly shows you its identity and purpose. The answers to my questions started to come almost immediately. Some of the kids from the Center led us on a walk all around the neighborhood, delivering Easter eggs and candy to every child, and wishing everyone a Happy Easter. The sun was hot. The ground was dusty. The drinking water situation was precarious. The children’s excitement was real, and their smiles genuine. Their hands grasped earnestly at the fingers and shirt hems of their American visitors, their “buddies,” as they asked us all kinds of questions: How old are you? How tall are you? What’s your favorite food? Do you have any pets?” And the visitors, all with varying levels of Spanish, tried their best to respond and reciprocate. Despite the hard up-and-down journey in the heat of the day, everyone had a great time, and each buddy learned something new about his counterpart. Neither Mexican child nor American adult can get that experience on a video call.
I got a sunburn. You can’t get that on a video call, either.
According to Maria Socorro del Rio, Director of Crecemos, this is exactly what the Come & See trip is all about: “When someone comes and gets to know what is being done, that person begins to understand the reasons and the value of the whole team who work to make this a reality. What’s more, it gives you the opportunity to speak with the people who receive the support, which isn’t a question of “reports” to some faceless donor, but rather a shared human experience.”
This intense shared experience continued into the afternoon. The American visitors were treated to concerts by both the guitar and string ensembles, who played a mix of Mexican folk songs, classical pieces, and contemporary hits. This was particularly impactful because while many of us are aware of Crecemos’ music program, we do not get to see the hard work the kids and the teachers put into it, and the progress the kids make. Similarly, for the kids, while they practice their instruments every week, they rarely get to play for other people, much less visitors from another country. This concert provided them a stage to experience what we have all felt: the nervousness, excitement, and pride that come from performing for other people. Also not something you can get over a video call.
Crecemos has been in operation for over 20 years. The community in Monte Alban understands that the Center receives financial support from many foundations and individual donors. However, a child who gets a healthy meal or homework help does not usually see the face behind the donation made for her benefit. She knows that the food arrives, that the programs happen, but these facts alone do not tell her that someone far away cares about what happens to her. As Maria Socorro says, “To say, ‘I’ll come to see you,’ has a very different implication.” For us to come visit them from thousands of miles away shows them that there are specific people who are supporting them, who have faces and names, and who care.
Likewise for the visitors, seeing the real faces of the children and families involved with Crecemos prompted them to understand their relationship differently. Several of them remarked that they were surprised by how much they identified with the children at the Center. “These children’s needs are the same as mine,” said Cecilia Tresoldi, AVSI-USA staff, “to be loved, acknowledged, to feel cared about, to have the opportunities to grow.”
“I was expecting to be a spectator, but it quickly became about a relationship. I was able to create real relationships with the people here, despite the language barrier,” remarked Irene Sorenson, a supporter from Maryland.
The theme of our common needs and desires culminated in a visit to a few libraries that Crecemos has built in local public schools. These libraries were made possible by private donations, including those from some of the trip participants. They are beautiful spaces full of all kinds of books for the children, and they host vitally important early childhood reading programs. What need could be more common, no matter if you are a child or an adult, no matter what country you are from, than to read, to have intellectual growth, and to have a sense of wonder and adventure?
As our visit neared its end, another question came to my mind: what next? This was all beautiful and affirming, but what does it mean for the visitors going forward? And what could it mean for the community in Oaxaca?
Sabrina Paganoni, a friend of AVSI from Boston who came to Oaxaca with her family, gave the answer:
“Each of us will go back to our different lives, but we can keep the spirit of this experience alive. After two years of the pandemic, with the world pushing for everything to be shades of gray, everything starts to seem boring, colorless, in a Zoom box. But then you see the kids playing, you see their life and their potential, and everything feels alive again. It shows my kids that there’s a world out there to explore, and it shows the kids who live here that people care about what happens to them. A gray world becomes filled with light and color. That’s a spirit we can each bring back to our own communities.”
There is the true positive effect of a trip like this. It adds color to the world for everyone involved – a splash of color which in turn inspires the staff at Crecemos to keep working hard for these children, knowing that they are supported by a strong network of people. A color which broadens horizons for the children living in Monte Alban, letting them know that there are more possibilities out there for them if they keep working hard. And finally, this splash of color can inspire us, if we allow it to, to bring the spirit of Crecemos back to our communities and share its mission with our family and friends. Show me a video call that can do all that!