Working with kids and volunteering is something I never really envisioned myself doing but after deciding to leave my life in Australia behind and travel for two years through South and Central America I soon found myself doing just that when I volunteered at children's refuge Misión México. I have spent the past eight months living in Mexico with the majority of that time (just under six months in total) spent volunteering at Misión México. The mission is based in Tapachula, in the southern state of Chiapas near the border of Guatemala. Misión México is a refuge for abused, abandoned and neglected children and was founded by an Australian couple Alan and Pam Skuse over fifteen years ago. What is truly unique about Misión México is that while providing a family home and education for over 250 children over the years they also give the children the gift of surfing by taking 32 children to the beach every weekend. The power and positivity of surfing is something that I strongly relate to and is what really drew me to volunteering at the refugee in the first place as I know first-hand how life changing the sport can be.
Misión México was originally founded in 2001 and has a truly amazing story behind it. In November 2000 Alan and Pamela Skuse came to Mexico to volunteer at a children’s refuge with the plan to stay for one year, however six months after arriving the refuge was set to close down due to lack of funding, with the seven children living at the refuge at risk of being returned to life on the streets once again. Despite having six of their own children living in Australia Alan and Pam made the amazing and selfless decision to stay in Tapachula and start their own refuge to care for the children. What a truly unbelievable decision to make and what this couple has achieved in 15 years they have founded and operated Misión México from scratch is truly astounding.
Starting with virtually no resources and relying on donations and generosity from people the world over they have built a large modern, safe and secure refuge facilities that currently houses 32 children and up to eight volunteers. These facilities now include a kitchen, dining area, laundry, volunteer’s quarters, chapel, playground, computer room, office, library, home school classroom, music room and even a swimming pool. While providing the children with a safe and loving environment to live, good food, clothing and much more now through the generosity of many international sponsors all of the children are now enrolled in private schools or the Misión México Home School Program .
As the children become young adults they have the opportunity to move offsite into the Youth Transition Program where they continue with their education and learn essential life skills to prepare them for independent living. A number of the young adults living independently receive university funding, allowing them to undertake further studies or are part of the work and training program at Mision Surf, where they are trained as builders/carpenters and employed to help construct the new Mision Surf facilities on the coast near Tapachula.
Arguably the children living in Misión México are much better off than many of the children living in and around Tapachula as there are so many fantastic opportunities open to them while the average Tapachulan child may never have access to such opportunities. In my opinion given the extremely tough and at times tragic backgrounds of the children they are more than deserving of any positive opportunity that Mision Mexico and their future lives gives them. [Continued below]
With my arrival at Misión México in February of 2016 I instantly went from having no children of my own to taking part in caring for and supervising 32 children ranging from 5-18 years old in my role as a volunteer. While it was an amazing but highly challenging time I still had a truly rewarding time working with these funny, kind, caring, complex, at times volatile but always happy and kind hearted children.
On arrival you could almost be forgiven for thinking that their childhood was no different than yours of mine, but beneath the broad smiles and cheeky laughter often lies sad and troubled pasts. Each child brings with them their own unique and often shockingly sad story of their life before the refugee. Without going into too much detail out of respect for the children in essence many of them have been directly affected by the complex issues surrounding extreme poverty and crime. These beautiful children have been affected by life on the streets, abandonment, extreme physical and even sexual abuse. These children have seen and experienced horrors that no child should ever face.
Despite all they have faced in their short yet extremely difficult pasts these children strive to leave their pasts behind them. It was almost too easy for me to forget their backgrounds as many are often more well behaved and respectful than many Western children I have encountered who have had very comfortable and much more privileged and often spoilt backgrounds. Despite their tough pasts there are some truly amazing children living at this refugee. The kids are full of character, unique personalities, cheek and charm. Often you will find yourself half trying to discipline a child while half trying not to laugh at the same time with some of the crazy and silly antics that they get up to and it is always interesting to observe the imaginative ways of which they make their own fun. Each child is so different. You will find some children will warm to you immediately while others may take more time while others may just never warm to you at all. A child may be your best friend one day and your arch nemesis the next... but I suppose kids will just be kids right?
What really blew me away about these special kids is the kindness and togetherness they show one another, ranging from unconditionally sharing all that they have with each other to consoling and supporting each other if one of them is going through a difficult time. [Continued below]
Before arriving at Misión México I always naively believed that I was really, really good with children but then I soon realised that it is one thing to be playing with kids and spoiling them for a few hours but it is a completely different kettle of fish when you are supervising and disciplining them. At Misión México you will soon learn that it is not all fun and games and merely playing with the children. If I am to be deadly honest with you it was probably one of the most challenging jobs of my entire life and I even came close to leaving on a couple of occasions and would of done so if I wasn't such a stubborn person. This is from someone who had previously worked years in the unforgiving hospitality industry, warehousing and even as a labourer in the forestry industry. Volunteering at the refugee can be very tough at times with volunteers working eight hour shifts six days a week. Individually all of the children are great but if they get their backs up as a group things can get very, very difficult.
While I rarely had issues with the older teenagers who were mostly well behaved and respectful if you in turn showed them respect and kindness but at times dealing with the younger children between the ages of 5-12 often proved very challenging for me. While individually their behaviour was not overly bad as a group they could prove difficult to deal with once the pack mentality would take over especially if they were worked up or hyper active. This is probably common behaviour among groups of young children but when working long shifts looking after 32 children with one other person it can prove frustrating and difficult.
Life at Misión México can at times be an emotional roller-coaster as for the children, volunteers and many workers there is not much of a life outside of Misión México and it is like living in a big bubble where even the smallest things are amplified. You can have two or three amazing days immediately followed by one of your toughest shifts. But I knew life working at the Mission would never be easy and I tried my best to knuckle down and get on with it. What really blew me away about the kids there is that they can sense that you might be struggling or upset they will go out of their way to try and cheer you up or to help you where possible. I think it is important for volunteers to make sure that they have time to themselves and to take time away from the refuge to relax.
In general, the volunteer role is more of a supervisory role where duties involve general close monitoring and even reprimanding the kids if needed. Duties include and are not limited to waking the children in the morning and ensuring that they are ready for school in time to supervising them and ensuring that their chores are completed. Volunteers make sure they have completed their homework, have had dinner and to get them ready for bed. Jobs, well this can be tricky and often one of the hardest and sometimes funniest parts of being a volunteer as children will often go through extreme measures to avoid doing their jobs and often spend more time arguing about not doing their job than the time it would actually take to complete the said task. They will often try to bluff you and argue to the hilt that their chore has been completed despite the fact that the carpark is overflowing with leafs that clearly did not fall within the past ten minutes. This is all just part of the fun and games of being a volunteer.
Another really cool bonus to being a volunteer is in fact the other volunteers you meet from around the world. The volunteers can really be a diverse bunch coming from a vast range of backgrounds, cultures and countries and while we may all be different we are all there for the same reason....the children. Life at the Mission was definitely more fun and enjoyable when there was a good crew of volunteers working there. However, probably my favourite part of being a volunteer are the beach days where 32 children plus 3-4 volunteers and various others would jump into two vans and head to beach every Sunday to surf, frolic and play. For myself this is where I felt I could strongly contribute by spending some quality time with the kids in the surf, taking surf photos as well as running a weekly bodyboard classes for the kids. I will cover the Mision Surf side of the refuge in more detail in my next blog post.
Despite a few tough times overall I had a great time working at Misión México and I found it difficult and somewhat emotional to leave the kids in the end. I still find myself missing them and their individual personalities and traits when I see photos of them on the Misión México facebook page. I went there to try and make a difference in the lives of these amazing children and in the end it was these kids who made a big difference in my life and gave me an experience I will never forget. So if you love traveling and would love the opportunity to do some good while experiencing an exciting and vibrant new country and culture then maybe the children's charity Misión México is the place for you. If you are interested in supporting a good cause or even volunteering please visit www.lovelifehope.com or contact email@example.com for more information about the volunteer program. Volunteers must be over 21 and commit to a 6-week minimum volunteering period. Please feel free to share and tag a friend.
Please note that 10% of the sales of my images will go towards Misión México.