Tuesday, 29 March 2016

The Street Child Games 2016: the volunteer experience

To anyone who is friends with me or who follows me on any kind of social media, it will come as no surprise that I have spent the last few weeks in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It will also come as no surprise that my purpose for the trip was to volunteer at the inaugural Street Child Games with Street Child United (which so many of you kindly sponsored me for - thank you so much!). Judging by my Instagram feed it was a jolly ol' trip and I had a great time. However in reality - as is so often the case with social media - there is a much deeper tale to tell. Yes, I had a really great time - it was hard not to working with such a wonderful bunch of young people, SCU staff members, and my amazing fellow volunteers. But it was also rather hard work and a very eye-opening experience.

Before I launch into sharing my experience, you may be wondering: "but why is a wellbeing blog talking about volunteering?". To which I would answer that volunteering your time and love to others is not only a very worthwhile use of our skills, resources and time, but it is also good for you (not that we should need this excuse!). And don't just take my word for it, according ICM research in 2004 nearly half of all volunteers (47%) they asked said volunteering improved their physical health and fitness. The research also show that volunteers felt less depressed (48%) and less stressed (63%) by taking part in their chosen volunteer role. Find out more here.

In terms of yoga, volunteering fits nicely into the karma yoga ideology: yoga of selfless service. And this definition leads me nicely on to introducing my fellow SCU volunteers. Each of them relentlessly, passionately, and selflessly carried out their volunteer duties throughout the whole ten day period. These are not people who volunteered to get something back - they quite clearly volunteered out of love and a sincere hope that we were doing everything we could to ensure that the former street children were the stars of show. We carried tonnes of water to and from various locations, we played volleyball in the pouring rain, we were the enthusiastic welcome committee, we cheered until our throats were coarse, we did our best to coach beach football, we got sunburn, we sweated (a lot!), we put up banners, we created flags, we served food, we clapped our hardest, we sung Shosholoza as loud as we could, we were high-five machines, we laid out hurdles, we timed races, we marched to samba rhythms, and we smiled the entire time. We had an amazing time, but my goodness was it tiring!

Some of my amazing fellow volunteers at Sugar Loaf, Rio de Janeiro

But did the tiredness matter? Of course not. We were there to support the amazing project leaders and SCU staff to create a platform for the voices of street child ambassadors to be heard. We were joined by 31 former street-connected children from 9 different countries. This event was theirs, and quite rightly so. For too long street-connected children have been routinely ignored and denied their basic rights. The amazing young people who joined us spoke eloquently and passionately about their rights, took part in some wonderful arts activities, and strongly competed in the inaugural Street Child Games at the stunning Urca athletics track (where we even got to see Fluminense FC train one day!). Most importantly they created the Rio Resolution  - a document in which the young people discuss the issues they face and the rights they demand, with particular attention to legal identity, protection from violence and access to fair education. On Friday 18th March, the young people presented this document to city officials, national governments and the United Nations. Please find out more about the Rio Resolution here

The Street Child Games at Urca. Image by Kylie Milne

Another huge part of this experience was staying in the community of Babilônia favela in the Leme part of the city. From the outset of the event it was clear that the community supported the SCG being based in their community - SCU t-shirts could be seen on taxi drivers, restaurant waiters, children, shop keepers and hostel workers - they wore our logo with pride and very quickly became part of the SCU family. We were split between 3 hostels - the young people and project leaders in the one at the entrance of the favela, and the volunteers in two nearer the top. We were made to feel incredibly at home. 

Babilônia is one of the safest favelas in Rio - along with Vidigal - very little trouble occurs there. The police and the community seem to coexist with little trouble. However whilst we were there we were faced with the unnerving uncertainty of the reality of living in Rio. For 3 consecutive days there were spurts of gunfire near the top two hostels. This is unheard of for Babilônia and it was clear that the community was shaken. No volunteers or anyone related to SCU were hurt, but there were sad reports of a few local deaths. According to one of our local sources, there are two well-established drug gangs in the city of Rio (each with their set territory), but recently a third has started to rear up and this is causing trouble in some of the most peaceful parts of town. Sadly it seems that Babilônia was their next effort. Despite everyone we knew of being safe and well, this was still a hugely eye-opening experience. I've never heard uncontrolled gunfire in real life. It was rather scary, but equally enabled us to see a glimpse of what it could be like living in some of the more dangerous favelas in Rio, helping us to understand just a tiny bit more as to what some of the young people may experience. 

Another eye-opening moment for me came at the famous Lapa arches. They are a Rio landmark, and are often visited by tourists. However it's also a prime spot for being smacked in the face with the reality of Rio's drug and homeless problems. Living under the arches are some of Rio's crack addicts. It is a heart-wrenching sight to see. We were there to support a local children's shelter, and they provided an amazing display of capoeira and samba for the SCG young people to experience and to join in with. Part way through the event a female crack addict joined the dancing. SCU is all about arms-wide-open, but it was such a sad thing to see. Her dress had ridden up and her backside was completely on show; she quite obviously wanted to dance with us, but her rhythms and movements were so disconnected and distant from the beat of the drums that she stood out for all the wrong reasons. Crack is a terrifying and nasty drug. 

To lighten the mood a little before I sign off, another of my duties at the SCG was to teach yoga to the volunteers who wanted to take part at the start of each day. It meant getting up rather early (sessions were 6-7am!), but it was the perfect way to start the day. As you may have noticed, there was a lot to take in each and every day, and yoga was the perfect way to start the day to ensure we had the focus and energy to do our best. And the sunrise was just incredible! Definitely worth the early starts!

Sunrise yoga overlooking Babilônia favela

I apologise for my whistle-stop account of the last few weeks, but there is so much to say and I don't want to bore you with an essay. If you are interested in learning more please do comment below or email me at lucyvicjackson@gmail.com. If you would like to support me further I still have a little bit of fundraising to achieve and I would be grateful for a donation of any size! This is my JustGiving page

The most important messages I would like to share with you are as follows: You are Somebody. You are important. Everybody is Somebody. Your words and actions are important. You deserve love and respect, and you should give love and respect. We are not in this world just to live separately from others, we are here to connect and to help one another grow. Show kindness and compassion. I'm not telling you to go and live in a favela, but what I would like to urge is that you show love each and every day in your own way, in your own community. Only then will the world be a better place. Love wins!

Love & light. Namaste y'all! Lucy x