Volunteer Voices

For my Spring Break I travelled to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on an Alternative Spring Break trip. Alternative Spring Break is a program sponsored by College Park Hillel. It involves taking service trips to different countries. My trip was a week long, and it focused on doing volunteer work in a local favela called Mangueira. To be honest, before leaving, I had no idea what to expect. Brazil is like nothing I have ever seen before. As we drove from the airport to our hotel, I looked up to see vast mountains that split the city. I saw houses, like blocks, stacked on top of each other and set into the hillside. And, last but not least, I saw the famous statue of Jesus that overlooks the entire city.

The first day, we went on a two-hour tour of the favelas to see the kind of environment in which we would be working. The favella was incredible. Never before have I seen such poverty. Most of the houses weren’t even complete. Many were missing walls and windows. In addition, there were children playing in the streets, while men were carrying guns and dealing drugs only a few steps away. In the middle of all this was our work site. For five days, we worked to help rebuild a sports center. It is the hope of the people of Mangueira that the sports center will soon provide office space for two doctors for the community. We painted, spackled, weeded, replaced doors and did a number of other jobs. Every day children from the surrounding area came to help us work and to play with us. Slowly but surely we became more and more a part of the community. As we got closer with the Mangueria children and their parents, I realized that the favela was really quite a strong community, much like the Jewish community in Baltimore. It is outlandish to think that a community run by drug lords could have any similarities to Baltimore’s Jewish community, but what I saw in Mangueira was a society of people who looked out for and cared about each other. Every single person I met was welcoming. Once a part of the favela community, it was hard to leave.

I think what I appreciated the most about the trip was the impact that my group made, even though we were only able to give back just a little. The locals living in the favela exhibited so much gratitude towards us, and it made me feel that I had done something special. I especially appreciated the connections that we were able to make with the people living in the favela. My memories of the Brazilian children are something that I will keep with me for the rest of my life. We saw them every day. Even though they lived in the midst of tremendous poverty, each child always had a smile on his or her face. I will not forget watching the children run after our bus after our last day in Mangueira. Since my time spent in Brazil, I have become so much more aware of my surroundings and the amenities that I have taken for granted. I have also come to appreciate the value of community. I am very sad about the fact that I will probably never be able to go back to Mangueira, but I hope that what we did will make a difference for both the children and the community.

Sarah Saxon is a Freshman at the University of Maryland- College Park and participated in the 2007-2008 Diller Teen Fellows program.

Sarah Saxon

I was involved with the America Reads program throughout college. The program’s mission was to connect underprivileged children with college students. Tutoring was clearly an important element of the program but arguably more important was the underlying message that with a little guidance, these children could achieve anything.

The U Can Be program has a similarly sound philosophy. Connecting young professionals with junior high school students from Baltimore City, the program strives to provide these often underprivileged children the opportunity to interact with professionals across many disciplines.

As a U Can Be volunteer, I quickly learned that with a small time commitment, volunteers can profoundly impact the lives of these students. I also learned that making a difference can be extremely rewarding.

I look forward to seeing all of you at future JVC events.

Mike Albo - Chair of U Can Be