I moved to Medellín four months ago and one amazing and unforgettable experience I’ve had so far was volunteering for TECHO, a youth led NGO that seeks to overcome poverty in slums from Latin America & the Caribbean.
The members want to do that through joint work between young volunteers and families living in extreme poverty so they’re always welcoming enthusiastic young individuals who want to give something back to society.
Every year, TECHO runs a volunteering program called Construcciones Masivas (Massive Constructions) that sends volunteers into the poor areas across the cities the NGO operates in, to help construct emergency housing.
It all happens for a weekend in which the teams of volunteers are being assigned a family to build the house for.
In the weekend I was involved, we were 280 volunteers building 25 houses for families in poor neighborhoods across Medellín.
We all arrived on Friday night at the school we were about to call ‘home’ for the next couple of days.
It was a difficult start as the rain wouldn’t stop pouring and the activities wouldn’t be cancelled because of weather conditions. This caught some of us, myself included, pretty unprepared in terms of clothing and equipment.
But the warmth the family received us with and the gratitude we could see in their eyes at every new step in the building process that we finished definitely worth it all.
The land where we were about to build the house on was located almost at the top of a hill, in a neighborhood called Portal de Oriente.
The slum is home to hundreds of families struggling to keep roofs over their heads.
Some of the residents are victims of displacement, as the violence caused by the guerrilla forced them to move away from their homeland and look for a quiet and peaceful place to continue their lives.
My team built a house for doña Maria Estella and her son Miguel, who were living in a house that was expected to fall apart at any given moment.
As the house was situated on a hill, we had to carry all our tools and parts of the pre-fabricated house up to the site. The wood panels we had to carry were pretty large and heavy so it took three or four people to carry them up, five if we’re talking about girls.
We started early in the morning, at 7 a.m., with digging the holes for the piles. It took us a whole raining day and a couple of hours the next day, as the rain finally stopped and the mud started to dry, making our job easier.
Doña Maria Estella looked after us the entire weekend, bringing us water and coffee whenever we needed the most and even cooking a delicious typical lunch for us each day.
She also helped us building, as well as her little son, other relatives and sometimes, neighbors, because that’s how things are going here, in Colombia, people help other people to overcome situations and grow.
Our house came into shape in the last day, on Sunday, when we got to finish the last details, windows, roof and door.
That very hot and sunny day made the small ribbon cutting ceremony we had at the end a very beautiful moment.
There were tears, lessons learned (Spanish ones included for me) and a strong feeling of gratitude that ‘our’ little family has now a clean and safe place to live in.
Looking back, I realize that, besides the accomplishment and gratitude we experienced that weekend, it was actually the people who made the experience unforgettable.
From the TECHO members and the other international volunteers to the families we met and neighbors we interacted with, they all were our little family for two days.
Colombians are known for their warmth, but actually experiencing it makes it all even better.
The lack of electricity and phone signal on those hills might also have contributed, but hey, who needs that when you wake up with such a view?
Some facts you need to know:
- The next edition will happen in August so if you happen to be in South America in that month and want to volunteer for a cause, keep an eye on the Facebook page and website.
- You’ll have to pay 20,000-30,000 pesos ($10-15) to ensure the meals for two days, plus transport.
- In case of bad weather, the activity is not cancelled.
- You’ll receive an email from the team with needed items for the weekend. Try to have them with you.
- Take pictures and bond with the family your team builds the house for. The stories they have might change your perspective on many things around you.