Discover > Magazine > September 2009 > Mission for kids > Jared Doles's journal
Journal of my time in Uruguay, June 2009
By Jared Doles
Key Club International trustee
and ambassador to UNICEF
What are you most looking forward to during your trip to Uruguay?
I’m very excited to meet the kids and see what they think about the project. We don’t often get the chance to ask those who benefit from our service their thoughts. It will be very enlightening to hear their thoughts.
Why did you decide to go on this trip?
It is important for Key Club members to know the specifics of what our support does and know that this is a very personal project. It doesn’t invoke confidence to ask someone to send money off to a foreign country, but when we do visits like this it allows us to share our experiences with everyone and gives the members confidence in supporting the project. It also makes it feel more personal, makes it our own.
What do you hope to learn or gain from your trip to Uruguay?
Maybe a little clarity on the reason we do service. It’s easy to say ‘helping others’ but this will help me understand better why they need us and what our impact could be. Hopefully, it will also open the eyes of a lot of people to how lucky we are and how we need to appreciate it more.
What do you expect to accomplish on your trip to Uruguay?
The best thing I can try for is to give these kids some hope. If our visit makes them feel that, lets them know that they have others on their side, then maybe we can give them the strength to hold on. And who knows? Maybe showing them how important it is to us to try and help others can influence them so they will try to go out and help the world too.
How is daily life in Uruguay different from your life?
Besides cultural things, such as the food, art and architecture, there is an entirely different attitude in the kids. They don’t feel sorry for themselves at all, just happy to have what they have. Most of their days are just spent enjoying each other and what little they have.
What is most surprising to you about children in Uruguay?
I guess I was honestly surprised about how little was different between us. They loved to play games and sports and they joked around and teased just like we would. They were so similar it wasn’t hard at all to fit in; it just worked.
How did your experiences in Uruguay differ from your idea of how it would be?
The kids were so much more personal and inviting than I had expected. I was waiting for formal introductions and planned activities, but the first thing we did was start playing ping-pong! By the end of the weekend we were crying at the thought of leaving each other. There wasn’t even an awkward space of time before they were comfortable with us. One of the kids had been teaching me a song for about half an hour before even asking my name! The way they relate to us makes it all clear that these are kids with a zeal for life. It’s hard to describe, but they seem almost happier than normal kids even though they have so little.
Who have you most enjoyed meeting on this trip? Why?
It is hard to pick a favorite in my mind. The UNICEF Uruguay staff and director Egidio Crotti were so kind and true role models. One of the kids almost made me cry when he called me his brother. But the most interesting was Fernando, the adult in charge of Mandalavos. He is so smart and talented and he commits so much time and love to these kids and their futures without expecting anything in return. He ate with them, stayed the night with them, even though he had better places he could have been. His actions are the true definition of selfless compassion.
Which memory from Uruguay sticks out in your mind most? Why?
I remember the day we got on the bus to leave the kids after spending time with them. They were so sad to see us leave and many were crying. They crowded around the van to wave and hug through the windows and when the van pulled away the entire crowd of them chased us down the sidewalk. I don’t think I could ever forget that. What we are doing means so much to them but even more to us, at least to me.
What would you tell your friends at home about your experience?
I would try and make them understand how important the project is. This isn’t just immediate help—it’s their entire future. This place gives them hope and a chance at a better life and if we have the chance to spread that, why wouldn’t we? We need to get more involved, not just Key Cubs but the kids from the schools and the communities together. Spread the word because this is something that is worth doing.
Do you think that Uruguay has changed your perspective on life? Why or why not?
The trip showed me how truly fragile our situation is and how ridiculous it is that we hold so much value in the things we do. It showed me the reason that we need to do service for the world and the real difference we can make in another’s life. It’s not something I had to learn, just that had sort of fallen asleep.
In truth, it made me remember why I do what I do. The things they have taught me and the spirit they have awoken in me is worth more than anything I could have given them.
What messages about this trip will you bring back to Key Club, your community and your friends?
No more half-hearted service. We need to continue to push with everything we have to help these kids. It can’t just be something we do; we have to remember that this something truly worth doing. Let’s push beyond the success we have had in the past. Get your families, schools and communities involved in the effort and let them know why we are trying: because we can change these kids’ lives for the better.
Saturday, June 6
Lance left the Dallas airport before me even though we got there at the same time! I hate airports.
Stopped in Dallas to grab some chicken. Got a serious workout crutching around the airport for miles, since they couldn’t make up their minds about where my flight is. Called Julie while in the airport. Lance thought she was my mom.
FINALLY got to Miami and grabbed some chow with Lance, Anna and Abigail. Met Bobby, the video guy, Frank, the sound guy, and Ellen from Indianapolis.
Frustrated because they never checked my passport, not ONCE before letting me into the country. Sigh…
Speedracer was on the in-flight stuff and Abigail fell asleep with her mouth open. Flight attendant hit my bad leg with the cart and got mad at me for it.
I was really excited to start the trip but kind of nervous too. I didn’t know how everything was going to work out so I was pretty anxious. I was REALLY anxious about actually meeting the kids at Mandalavos.
Watched the redhead on Confessions of a Shopaholic as I fell asleep. Life is hard…
Sunday, June 7
Had to wear masks so we didn’t give anyone swine flu in the airport. Flight attendant lost my crutches and had to go looking for them.
We went through security for the last time. First step as you enter the country and there are about six women selling American-made perfume. Ironic…
The airport lost Anna’s luggage. I felt really bad, but hoped Abigail could lend her some stuff for a couple of days. Met Egidio, head of the Uruguay’s UNICEF office, and Maria. Apparently they kiss to greet a person in Uruguay. Weird, but whatev…
Took a tour of the city. Here are some things I noticed:
• The buildings were all ornate with carving and pillars
• Government buildings are huge and made of stone
• Stray dogs can be seen on almost every street
• Broken glass is lined on the walls to ward off intruders
• People are out everywhere, walking, playing soccer, activity everywhere
• Few have signs, most just have painted words on the buildings
• Mansions and cathedrals next door to scrap-metal shacks
• No street signs or painted road lines
• Beautiful view over the bay
• Art is everywhere. Statues, murals, carvings…
• Cars are made in odd, rounded shapes like SUVs
• Buildings and doors all bigger than normal, huge compared to ours
• Drivers go fast and drive wherever it takes to get there quickly. Very scary
Had dinner at the Old Maz restaurant. Maria ordered for me and I got some kind of beef dish that was very heavily seasoned, but very good. Abigail and Anna got calzones the size of Cuba and Lance had an entire pizza! Mike Downs wouldn’t let me order off the wine list for some reason… Dessert was amazing. I didn’t expect it to be but it was, especially the ice cream.
Monday, June 8
Spent our first night in Montevideo. Woke up with a sore throat, probably from the plane ride. Kristi gave me some vitamin C drops that helped though. Kept taking pictures of all the beautiful buildings. Everything is so ornate and there is art everywhere. If there weren’t shacks next door it would have been an absolutely beautiful city.
Got to the UNICEF office and after playing elevator musical-chairs met all the UNICEF Uruguay staff. They drink some kind of heavy tea out of wooden mugs. They explained the project to us and went through the schedule for our week.
Arrived at Mandalavos Center. Did I mention they kiss on the cheek to greet someone? A bunch of the kids were waiting to greet us along with Fernando, the adult in charge. They all seemed so excited to meet us. We actually met the kids from the interviews! One of the guys grabbed me and we went over and played ping-pong. We hung out, talking with the kids and playing games. They got an interpreter for us named Macarana, but we ended playing charades pretty often to try and talk.
Later we went and visited the schools that the kids attend and got to look around. Kids were staring and yelling and following us around, probably because of the camera. Laughed when Macarana called it a soccer “pitch.” The schools are so different. They are cramped together with old desks and no books. The music class didn’t have any instruments; they just sang and repeated what the teacher said. The kids from the center were still so proud to show us around. They talked to their classmates about Mandalavos. They are obviously very proud to be a part of it.
After hanging out with the kids for most of the day, we went back to the center to watch some movies they had made. The kid who won the video contest actually got a Wii! Videos were great and were filmed right around the center.
Went to the hostel that some of the kids stay at overnight. It was freezing but still fun. Got a great meal and a chance to hang out with the kids some more. Belen taught me how to dance and I taught Abigail to two-step. Then the Americanos taught them the Electric Slide. One of the guys, Alex, was drawing and practicing his English. He made me a drawing, and at the bottom wrote, “To Jared, my brother”. I will never forget that moment. Finally went to bed after playing some games in the lobby. Had a massive pillow fight in the guys’ dorms. Lance and I stayed up on the beds while Matias and Jonathan ran around throwing pillows. We beat them, badly.
Everyone got to bed and Fernando turned the lights out but we were still up for hours. Everyone was yelling and joking around and throwing pillows. They have such a family-like aura around them. We could hear Mike, Bobby and Frank next door laughing at us.
Tuesday, June 9
Had breakfast at Emaus. Woke up to Maxi hitting me with a pillow. Did breakfast dishes with Oscar and Caty. Got to hang out with them some more before being bused off to tour another school. The principal and staff met us and presented a program they used to provide help for kids with mental disabilities in the schools, since the government didn’t have one. It made me think about Fernando and Egidio and realized how selfless they were. People like that are the reason there is hope for the kids here.
We headed back to Mandalavos for lunch where they fed us half-a-freakin’ chicken and enough rice to feed a small country. The kids could eat it all and went back for more while Lance, Abigail, Anna and I could barely finish half.
Went back and spent more time at Mandalavos. The kids feel so close and important to me now. I could feel a knot in my stomach when I dreaded the imminent departure.
Spent the rest of the day talking with the kids and having a good time. Laughed at Lance when he fell on his back trying to kick a punching bag. Arm wrestled with a bunch of guys. Anna and Abigail were surrounded by boys 24/7. Bet they loved that.
Been getting real close to Carlos who is an awesome dancer and spent a lot of time listening to music and talking with me. I couldn’t understand him half the time but he didn’t mind and just kept trying. Going to miss that kid.
Everyone went into the building and sat in a big circle with all the Mandalavos kids. Everyone talked about what the trip had meant to them and the impact we had on each other. The girls were both crying along with some of the Mandalavos kids like Caty and Belen. We talked about what we have learned, which only made the Jared-weeping-like-a-baby scenario more likely.
The kids presented us with books they had made that showed a tour of the city with pictures and captions they had done themselves. Each was hand-decorated too. Alex gave me mine with a long hug which almost threw me over the edge. Matias could barely give Abigail hers because he was crying so hard.
As a special surprise they presented us with a dried gourd that had all their names carved into it. In Uruguayan culture, they used to break them and two people would each take a piece, so that when they kept it they would remember there was someone out there you were connected with. They made one for us and one for themselves so we would remember them, like we could forget.
When we finally went to leave the entire group followed us out to the van. As it pulled away, the whole crowd of them chased us down the sidewalk yelling and waving. I will never forget that.
We visited the El Rarjo office where I slipped and almost fell down the stairs. We spent the afternoon seeing different community projects around the city. Most of the people didn’t speak English so Macarena had to interpret. After, we went back to the hotel to spend the night. Grabbed dinner again and we watched Signs before crashing for the night.
Wednesday, June 10
Met Mario and Alejandra at the hotel to see a bunch of different programs for the children in Uruguay. They all seemed so glad to see us. Got made fun of for asking so many questions. I can’t help being impressed with all the support for these kids in the area. It kind of gives you hope to see so many people, all concerned about the conditions for the adolescents, working so selflessly.
Got to go shopping for a bit. All the stores were American and name brands. Montevideo is obviously a huge tourist destination. Things are more expensive here too, since it has to be imported. Grabbed some gelato on our way out. It was amazing. I got Dulce de leche and banana flavored. We took pictures of storefronts as we went by. Went to the hotel and stayed up late, enjoying our last night in Uruguay.
Thursday, June 11
Packed and went back to the office in Montevideo. Skipped breakfast because everyone was waiting on us…oops.
Went back to the UNICEF headquarters to go through debriefing. Alejandra taught me how to prepare Mate (tea) and let me try it. Made me gag… badly.
Showed the staff our UNICEF “Operation Uruguay” shirts which they loved. They explained the proposal and asked what areas we thought needed to be focused on. Said goodbye to the UNICEF staff for the last time.
Went to lunch where we met up with the kids from Mandalavos! Caty, Belen, Carlos, Matias, Jonathan and many others were there along with Fernando and some of the UNICEF employees. As we ate lunch the kids started giving us cards and gifts they had made. They were so kind and friendly and it made me even more sad, knowing we would be leaving soon. They also had a flag they had everyone sign before they gave it to us. It was amazing and I was so glad to get one last chance to spend time with them before leaving. We went outside to play some games before heading out for a walk on the beach.
We walked across the city along the road and down the pier to a lighthouse. Once we reached the lighthouse Fernando explained that Montevideo along with Argentina used to control the coast during Spanish colonization. He also explained why he liked to bring the kids here. He said, “They focus so much on getting to the end, and once they do, they realize that the journey was the most important part.” He meant it as a metaphor for life. The beautiful waves and the view of the city coastline made it clear as we walked back.
We walked back through the old city and saw the most important church in Uruguay. We followed a road down through the market of street vendors to get there, and when we did the van was waiting for us. We said “goodbye” for the last time and each of the kids had to hug us three or four times before they would let us get in the van. They had to take a hundred pictures and were waving and reaching for us through the windows, a couple even trying to sneak into the van with us. They all crowded to shout and wave as we pulled away. It was terrible as they fell out of sight.
Went to the airport where they had cancelled my flights. Had to re-route through Orlando, which also got cancelled, but finally got on the plane home. Got wanded as we went through security because of my brace. They checked my passport, FINALLY, and I got on the plane. We moved around so we could all sit together. Watched Marley and Me and argued with the girls about the ties between a guy and his dog. Abigail fell asleep across my lap just as we left the country’s borders and realized that our journey was finished.
• Served Provolone cheese (I think) just melted on a plate as a side dish.
• Mate is very popular, strong, grainy tea.
• Coca-Cola is generally expected with every meal, even at Emaus and Mandalavos.
• Meals consisted of lots of meat or sometimes only meat.
• Meat was always well done, cooked heavily and seasoned heavily.
• Other dishes (fries, mashed potatoes, rice…) had little to no seasoning.
• Desserts were intricate and amazing, and a lot included ice cream.
• Dulce de leche is a spread similar to caramel served with many desserts.
• Ice cream tasted more like gelato.
• Sometimes someone would carry around a plate of sliced meat for everyone to snack on. Just meat.
• All portions were huge. About twice the size of normal here. Also, they ate a snack between lunch and dinner that is the size of a meal here by itself.
• Eat dinner late in the evenings, ten or eleven at night.
• Very art-oriented. Statues and paintings everywhere. Even graffiti was often a mural.
• Dogs everywhere. No animal control in Uruguay.
• Dogs all very well-behaved. Some inhabitants even carried food to feed the stray dogs.
• Kiss as a greeting. Considered impolite to enter a room and not kiss all inhabitants. Must apologize if you do not.
• Buildings and doorways all huge, while hallways and rooms all narrow.
• Little personal space issues. Being shoved out of the way is completely normal.
• Got weird looks from being polite or holding doors.
• Impolite not to offer Mate to everyone. If taken up on offer, the person must drink the entire amount.
• Very political. Even the graffiti said ‘Vote Pepe for President.’
• Poor opinion of teenagers.
• Poor jail and education quality.
• Lot of smokers. No negative attitude towards smoking. No youth tobacco restrictions.
• Form of crack very popular.
• Split society. Students didn’t have a place to sleep but texted on their phones.
• Democratic since 1985.
• Government program gave every child a laptop.
Signs of disparity
• Kids with holes in shoes and no socks.
• No nets for ping-pong. Table and barrier made out of scrap wood.
• Shacks outside government buildings.
• People collecting trash to sort it and sell it.
• Children having to stay in a hostel overnight.
• A kid had an MP3 but with no headphones.
• Kids had draped material instead of a real shirt.
• Homeless sleeping on street corners.
• Beggars, including children, young as about 10.
• Poor sanitation. In school, toilet is just a hole in the ground. Often in view of public.