I haven’t done community service or volunteered for well over 10 yrs now. I did quite a bit of community service as a youngster through boy scouts, and always appreciated the experience. Since then life and selfish adventures around the globe have filled my time. My volunteer experience with the Muskoka Foundation [link] came about through my desire to compete in the Maya Rally [link], an overland scavenger hunt across Mexico. By doing 5 or so days of volunteering I received a free entry into the rally, quite the good deal for a traveling photographer and journalist who has little money and a super flexible schedule.
Upon arriving in Gunajuato the Muskoka coordinator Katie Clancy took us all, more than 11 volunteers, into her home and prepared a big traditional Mexican meal. The hospitality was amazing throughout this experience by all involved, especially Katie. The room was full of excited energy as all the very like minded travelers, turned volunteers, were excited to get to know each other and start a project that will make a difference in the lives of some kids in need. Katie delivered an outline of the possible projects that could be tackled by the group and let us all come together to generally agree on what rolls we might play and what was feasible to accomplish in our limited time. The night’s energy continued with merriment around a piñata for one of the volunteer’s birthdays. The instant life long connections made in this room set the tone for an unforgettable and productive experience.
Early the next morning we all piled into a few vehicles for the hour drive from Guanajuato to Irapuato, where we would be working at the Abrrigal de Irapuato boys home. As we rolled in we were greeted with lots of smiles from about 10 rambunctious boys ranging from about 5-16 yrs old. The first few hours were dedicated to just interacting with the boys and getting a feel for our surroundings. We played sports and ran around with the kids on the playground, but the highlights for the kids were the two motorcycles from our group and our cameras. The kids loved climbing on the motos and playing with all the buttons and gear. One of the volunteers, Tad, even let the boys rev his big BMW GS800, which was a BIG crowd pleaser! I was amazed at how naturally skilled many of the boys were with our cameras. They loved seeing photos of themselves and their friends on the screens.
Things settled down in the late afternoon when most of the boys went off to school, allowing us to start building a to do list and break into teams to accomplish the tasks that we set out for ourselves. In the end we decided that the most pressing issues, and biggest impact we could have, would be to spruce up their playground area and make their large dormitory style rooms into more personal spaces, that the boys could take pride and ownership in. We quickly made some to-do lists and shopping lists and were off to Home Depot to get our supplies. After quite the mission in Home Depot gathering supplies the whole crew was tired and getting very “hangry.” Luckily on the way out of town we found a little torta restaurant call The Oasis, with good drinks and inexpensive food. After the long dark drive, on crazy Mexican roads back to camp, everyone quickly passed out in order to rest up for the workdays ahead.
On day two we got to work at the orphanage, which included a TON of cutting, grinding, sanding and a bit of painting on the playground. We started sewing up special bedding sets and did a massive amount of painting in the little boys rooms. After the intense work, we all rallied back to Guanajuato to spend the afternoon at the Buen Pastor, a girls orphanage that Katie has been working with for over 3 yrs. It was a stark contrast to the Irapuato boys home. The Buen Pastor is run by the church, very organized, very clean and requires its residents to spend the weekends outside the orphanage, preferably with their families. We got the grand tour of the facilities, then spent some time playing with the girls on the playground and showing them photos from our adventures around the globe. The girls also used our cameras to take some truly amazing photos, as photography once again broke down any language barriers that their might have been. The crew retired back to camp in the evening and enjoyed some much earned relaxation and late night adult beverages.
The next morning we had a leisurely time around camp and enjoyed a big group breakfast put together from whatever people had in their fridges. We made it to the orphanage in the early afternoon just in time to see the boys off to school, which allowed us to buckle down and finish up all the grinding, much of the painting and finish up the kids bedding sets late into the evening. We enjoyed a campfire, the Transformers movie in Spanish and set up our tents for a campout at the orphanage. The boys loved all the attention and special treats.
After breakfast with the boys we got to work finishing up all the big projects on the playground and painting the big kids room. With a sore and tired crew we headed back to Guanajuato and had a big group dinner in Centro. We then got talked into some drinks at a going away party for Camilla, an amazing young woman who raises funds for projects like ours at the Irapuato orphanage. The party then continued late into the night back at camp.
Everyone had a bit of a sleep in on Sunday and then headed up to La Calderon, a crazy moonscape like area in the mountains overlooking Guanajuato. We all caravanned up some easy off-road and then hiked into a great picnic area in the shade of a lone group of trees. While hiking I took advantage of the amazing terrain with a little 5.7 barefoot slab climb and a “trail” run in my slide sandals up the tallest peak. The views from both little excursions where well worth the effort. When we got back to camp the other Maya Rally teams had started to roll into town and a big group of us headed out on the town to find food. It was tough herding such a large group and finding something that everyone would be into, but in the end a solid group of us ate at an amazing little chicken place, which also happened to have amazing queso chorizo fundito and homemade chicken nuggets! A smaller group of us also stayed out even longer and enjoyed some posh drinks and live tunes at the Tunel bar in Centro.
Monday was our last day with the boys in Irapuato. We finished up all the little things on the playground, finished the trim paint in the big boys room and had some fun artistically spray painting some accents around the boys sleeping quarters. We also managed to get a photo of each boy printed and framed for them to have on the walls at the orphanage. After a sad goodbye with the boys we made it back to camp for lots of drinking and chatting with the other rally teams. This was the first night of Mescal for many of us and one many won’t forget, or maybe already have.
The experience with the boys in Irapuato will not be soon forgotten. Hopefully it will lay the groundwork for similar projects across Latin America and start the ball rolling for even bigger projects at the Irapuato orphanage. I can say for sure that a close second to helping the kids are the amazing connections made with the other volunteers. We had a rock star team that really couldn’t have been more solid or well rounded. We also couldn’t have made it happen without the amazing leadership and guidance from Katie. We, and all the kids, love you Katie!
PS- My team, #teamAstrid, completed the entire Maya Rally Survival Guide and won the rally. Neither of those things really matter in the end though, as the inspiring people along the way are what made this journey the amazing special experience that it was. PSS- #teamAstrid was named after my teammate Anthony Sicola’s wife. She was unable to join on the Maya Rally due to lingering complications from Leukemia and a bone marrow transplant. Her strength, compassion and amazing spirit were with us throughout the Maya Rally adventure. Thanks Astrid Sicola for being the awe inspiring person that you are! Follow Anthony & Astrid’s adventures on www.OverlandNomads.com.