My Rotary Club here in Salta, Rotary Valle de Lerma, has totally been one of the things I really look forward to every single week.
My first meeting back in the beginning of February was literally pretty terrifying. I had just gotten to Salta a week ago, everyone was speaking super fast, talking about things I didn’t know much about, asking me questions, etc. My memory of this night is pretty much me sitting there trying SO hard to understand everything and leaving completely mentally exhausted. At the time I didn’t know that I was mentally exhausted. But looking back, understanding them all really did costarme un poco — it took effort.
Fast forward to April. My Rotarians have literally become my replacement extended family. Mario is the uncle that always makes jokes and is hilarious. Ana is the bilingual aunt who always speaks to you in English just for the practice. Lina is the aunt that acts like your mom, but at the same time tells you a little bit too much. Estela is the aunt who is always worried about you but super busy with work. Luciano is the cool uncle who just tries to help you fit in. Martín is the super smart uncle who tries to keep the family dinners on track because he doesn’t want to be there for 10 hours. Hector is the uncle that only shows up sometimes but manages the money, so you don’t want to mess with him!
Every week when I go, I am SO excited and happy to see each one of them. I’m starting to realize that they genuinely care about me just like I genuinely care about them. The other day, Lina told me that out of all the exchange students, people with internships, etc. that have ever come to Salta, I am the only one that has gone to the meetings every week and gotten super involved with the club and with the district. Personally, I just can’t imagine my life here without a crazy group of aunts and uncles here to make fun of my awkward, not-quite-fluent Spanish.
I truly realized how much I love my Rotarians just this week. On Wednesday, we went to a school in San Lorenzo, a community around 7KM outside of Salta. Although San Lorenzo as a whole is really quite nice and well-developed, the school is in an extremely, extremely poor neighborhood. It took me back to when I volunteered at an after school program in the most impoverished neighborhood in Quito, Ecuador. The kids constantly smile but you can just tell that a lot of things are working against them.
It turns out that my Rotary club has had a relationship with this school since 1995, when it was first founded. In that time they have volunteered many hours there helping to construct a garden/yard/play area, have donated tons of school supplies, and have just formed a really strong connection with the teachers and kids alike. This time we brought 3 computers, 3 monitors, a printer, and a heater (winter is coming). In the US, these computers and monitors would be thrown in the trash probably, never to be seen again. But here, these old computers and big box monitors are getting a second life.
This all really struck me, because even the schools in the worst neighborhoods in Milwaukee still have, in general, a big room full of pretty new computers at the very least thanks to tech grants and other things like that. We really, really value computer access for kids. Argentina shows similar values in that regard, but there just aren’t the resources available in the public schools to make that happen… meaning that some children could potentially get through elementary school without using a computer.
The other thing that struck me and hit way too close to home was some news the assistant principal at the school told us…. A few days ago, a 7th grade student at the school committed suicide.
As we were leaving the school, one of my Rotarians got lost and we ended up passing by this student’s funeral at a church nearby. The church was so packed that people were filling the entire lawn outside the church. I don’t know the details behind what happened, but I do know that here, just as in the USA, students living in poverty are faced with a lot of tough situations. Domestic violence, alcohol and drug abuse, poor nutrition, and bullying is also prevalent here. It’s hard to say what caused this student to take his own life at such a young age, but on the car ride back into Salta I couldn’t help but think about my middle and high school students in the USA. Fortunately I have not had a student take his or her own life at this point in my career, and I hope that I will never have to cope with that kind of situation. But I do know that this kind of thing happens all too often, and suicides can trigger a chain of events where other students decide to do the same. I hope that this community gets through this tough time successfully by relying on each other, on positive things, and on prayer. Given the strong Catholic faith here, I know that prayer will be a key factor in helping this student’s friends and family overcome their grief.
I’ve been thinking a lot about what else can be done to help the kids at this school get the things that they need. I am going to talk to my Rotarians and to the teachers at the school and will hopefully help set up some kind of online donation system to raise money for the school. I’m also going to try to help the Rotary Club here with their social media and online presence to help them build more membership, because more membership means more passionate people working to make a change. I am learning so much from them and the Rotarians are truly making my experience here complete, so I truly want to start doing more to thank them! I don’t really know how to end this post, other than just simply thanking Rotary again, both here in Salta and at home, for this amazing, amazing experience.