Volunteering with Up Close Bolivia

It’s been nearly a year since we first came to La Paz, and we haven’t yet posted about what brought us here in the first place. So, here’s a run-down of our volunteering experience with Up Close Bolivia.

What:
From a children’s centre to English classes and community tourism development, Up Close have several projects based in the communities of Jupapina and Mallasa, two villages just outside of La Paz. The organization was founded by Emma and Rolando, a British-Bolivian couple. With the help of Karen, the volunteer coordinator, they continue to be very actively involved in the activities of Up Close Bolivia.

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What we did:
Since we’re English teachers, we worked on developing free English classes for the community. They had previously run a course with a book written by a volunteer, but we knew we needed something more structured because in the future the courses would be taught by volunteers without teaching experience. Working with another volunteer, a Maths teacher from Melbourne, we sourced materials, wrote syllabi and created flashcards. Then we taught.

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We ran a short children’s course during the winter holidays as well as beginning a long-term evening course for adults. This evening course is still going, and while living in La Paz we’ve continued to help out by training new volunteers.

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Where we lived:
The volunteer accommodation is absolutely beautiful. There are several small cottages which are really well-equipped with proper hot water (uncommon in Bolivia), full kitchens, cosy duvets, TVs and a big selection of DVDs (as well as an indoor hammock and fireplace, depending on which house you’re in).

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The grounds around are perfect for lazing in the sun, barbecuing or playing football. We spent many a night cooking communal dinners with the other volunteers or hanging out with the playful pets, and attending welcoming or leaving dinners up at Emma’s house as volunteers came and went.

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Down-time:
We actually had quite a bit of free-time in which to explore the surrounding area: Valle de la Luna, Muela del Diablo and La Paz. Up Close expects hard work from volunteers, but they also know that people want to take the opportunity to explore Bolivia while they’re here and so they’re happy to let you take a long weekend to do that. Several other volunteers even went further afield to Lake Titicaca, Sorata, Coroico, Uyuni, Rurrenabaque and Machu Picchu.

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Requirements and fees:
Volunteers with all types of experience are welcomed and encouraged to make use of their particular skills. Minimum age is 21, but younger volunteers may be accepted if they can show suitable maturity. You don’t have to speak Spanish, but obviously it helps. Up Close can arrange Spanish classes at a competitive rate or help set-up a language exchange. One month minimum commitment. We paid $450 per person, which included accommodation, support from Up Close staff and some money towards developing the English classes (and other Up Close projects).

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Final thoughts:
Being given total trust and responsibility for our own project was both empowering and a little daunting. But once we actually started, I realized just how much I had to contribute and seeing how things actually got implemented quickly, it was a huge confidence boost and I realised that this was something that really had an impact on the local community. A year on, and with the help of all the amazing volunteers since that first English class, the program has now grown to include three different classes open to the public as well as special courses for local government workers. To be part of this close-knit community of volunteers and locals has been a really wonderful experience and we’re so happy we found Up Close for this opportunity.

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