My last volunteering project with Maximo Nivel Peru was by far the toughest. I spent a week up in the mountains with a typical Andean Quechua-speaking family in Umasbamba, a small Quechua community of no more than 100 families. The setting was very rural, with houses made of adobe mud, which was quite cold.
My hosts, the lovely Rafaella and her husband Zenobio, lived a very simple life with their two daughters and baby son. They also had several animals, two not-so-white dogs, sheep, guinea pigs, chickens, a donkey, and Lucy the llama. Their main sources of income were derived from their small-scale subsistence farming activities, weaving products, different jobs Zenobio was working at, and from hosting volunteers.
Working on the farm was a tough but unforgettable experience, to say the least. The jobs I did included cutting alfalfa, feeding the guinea pigs, peeling beans (six hours non-stop sitting on a cold floor) and potatoes, sorting corn kernels, scattering manure with my hands (seriously!), taking the sheep out to the field, and helping with food prep. Let me tell you that those tasks ranged from fun to exhausting.
One of the hardest things was the cold. By 6 pm, it would be pitch black and freezing cold, so once we had finished dinner at around 7.30 pm I would retire to my room to get into my sleeping bag. The cold was my main reason to say goodnight, but not being able to make conversation was another good reason. As there was no phone or Wi-Fi connection, it could get quite lonely out there; and due to the cold, I wasn’t able to read at night. I tried to read with my gloves and hood on one night, but my nose was so cold that I gave up and just curled up in my sleeping bag. I can honestly say that I’ve never been that cold in my life. Taking a cold shower wasn’t an option either, especially knowing that I was on anti-flu medication already. So, I will be eternally grateful to whoever invented wet wipes and dry shampoo! Trust me when I tell you that I showered three times after I got to my hotel after the project.
As I mentioned before, it was demanding but rewarding. Spending time with these humble, loving people made it all worth it. It certainly puts life in perspective! And knowing that their two daughters are enrolled at university, thanks to the support of us volunteers, is just fantastic. It makes it all worthwhile.
My third project in Peru was volunteering at El Centro La Recoleta, an elderly home of about 150 senior citizens who were either abandoned by their families or happened to outlive them.
La Recoleta is a Catholic establishment run by six nuns and consists of four separate pavilions that house the elderly. Our day started with feeding breakfast to those who couldn’t feed themselves followed by some time outdoors so they could enjoy the sunshine.
One day, when I brought a certain man to his allocated chair outside, he grabbed my hand firmly and didn’t let go. He looked me in the eyes and planted a kiss on my hand. I was so touched by it, but more than that, it showed me how lonely these people were and how much it means to have people who spend time with and care for them. It was heartwarming but heartbreaking at the same time.
Afterwards, we did the dishes, folded the clean laundry, and helped with the lunch preparations. It was encouraging to see the number of Peruvian youngsters showing up on their off days to volunteer. I was impressed at how those kids decided to help those in need instead of enjoying their free time somewhere else. They set a good example.
Overall, it was beautiful to see what a close community the people in Cusco are. It is obvious that people support one another: those more fortunate bring food to the poor and organize charity events to collect money for those in need. Many of the people I met were supporting in one way or another.
It’s important for everyone to realize that there are so many people in the world who aren’t as fortunate as us. And once you realize that, find a way to support them. Even the smallest contribution, like holding and old man’s hand for a morning in the sun, can make a world of difference to some people. This is how we can all work towards making the world a better place.
My second project in Peru was as a volunteer with Corazón, a wonderful project in the Saylla district on the outskirts of Cusco. I feel so blessed to have met Laura. Laura founded the afterschool program for children ten years ago, at the age of 62. She started the program because many of the children’s parents work long hours and the kids are left without supervision. As Laura says, these kids are the future of Peru, so we need to support them and keep them off the streets. She gets little support from the government, so everything is funded by herself and the support she gets from organizations such as Maximo Nivel Peru.
There are currently 57 children aged 5 to 13 years enrolled in the program, so the support from volunteers is vital. Each day typically begins with the kids doing their homework. In the picture, I am helping the boy do his English homework. I have never encountered a kid that was so happy doing homework! He loved the help and support. He showed his gratitude with the biggest smiles and it was so heartwarming! After homework, there was one hour allocated to reading, to improve their skills. After homework and reading, it was play time.
I truly fell in love with this project. It has so much meaning to it. Keeping children off the streets and investing the time to enhance their skills and knowledge is of such great importance. It all translates in building a better and safer world.
The world really needs more people like Laura.
My first project as a volunteer with Maximo Nivel was as a teacher’s assistant at the Jardín Cajonahuaylla (jardín is Spanish for garden, which is a way of saying pre-school in Peru). Approximately 130 children aged 3–5 years are enrolled, most of them from poor, disadvantaged backgrounds. The aim of the school is to provide a good education to children from low-income families. Having only five teachers makes the support of volunteers necessary. I was assigned to work with the five-year-olds. As a volunteer, I provided classroom assistance and individual attention to ensure a smoother and more productive day. My responsibilities included taking kids to the restroom, teaching them to wash their hands afterwards (this was very important as this can prevent them from getting parasites), assisting with hygiene stations, and preparing homework and worksheets. For consistency and to add a greater impact to the program, we made daily entries into the online volunteer journal, which helps the next volunteer pick up where we left off.
We had the chance to spend a whole day in the park with some of the children and their parents. The kids had made their own cometas (kites) and we helped get them off the ground and into the sky! It was a day filled with fun and it was heartwarming to see their happy faces. Unfortunately, the school couldn’t arrange for transportation to the park due to a lack of resources, so their parents had to bring them. And because most of the parents also didn’t have the means to provide for transportation, many kids missed out. It is in these moments that you realize how different their world is in comparison to ours. I never doubted as a child that I wouldn’t be able to make it to a school outing. We were taken to amusement parks, the beach, and to many other places. I didn’t miss even one, but it’s only now that I realize that I took something for granted that isn’t a reality for many other kids around the world. But one thing will always be the same: wherever they are in the world and whatever their background, kids will be kids. They adjust to whatever situation they are in, bringing sunshine and joy to the world. I loved being surrounded by that bunch of beautiful children. Their craving for hugs, attention, and love was huge. My time with them made me confront myself and some of my preconceptions, but it was very rewarding nonetheless. Those children stole my heart and made me grateful for all the beautiful things that life has to offer.
On my first day as a volunteer Research Assistant in Akumal, Mexico, I was overwhelmed by what I saw. There was a smelly, brown-colored “something” spread all over the coastline. I learned that this is sargassum, which is a family of brown seaweed.
In 2018, a sargassum crisis hit the Caribbean Sea, causing catastrophic damage to the reefs. It washes ashore, piles up on the beach, and decomposes. Not only does it block beaches and repel swimmers, it also emanates a foul smell and releases fumes of sulfur compounds that can cause respiratory problems. Needless to say, it has a major impact on tourism, fisheries, and wildlife. Incoming floats of sargassum choke sea grasses and coral reefs, while fishermen struggle to get in the water. The sargassum tangles up their engines, their nets, and their lines. Factors that have led to the growth of sargassum are the increase in sea temperature, the change of sea currents due to climate change, nutrients from agricultural fertilizers, and inadequately treated sewage that ends up in the sea. Sargassum on the beaches of the Mexican Caribbean has killed 78 species, including fish and corals, as it reduces the level of oxygen in the ocean, changes the acidity of the water, and increases the levels of ammonium and phosphorus tenfold. In time, the presence of sargassum will lead to a process of desertification in the shallow seabed, which may become an irreversible phenomenon.
It’s not these algae that are the problem, but the large quantities in which they are produced. The oceans occupy two-thirds of the planet, so most of the air we breathe is thanks to them. It is of high importance to restore and mitigate the effects of sargassum, to use it sustainably, and to educate as many as possible about the oceans.
One method of removing the sargassum is by spade and wheelbarrow onshore. So, we did. On the days we couldn’t go out on the water, we would get our dive boots on, take a shovel or rake, and start piling up the sargassum for collection by the municipality. It was a tough physical exercise but it was so rewarding to see a clean beach. Unfortunately, the beach didn’t stay clean for very long as the next float of sargassum would be ready to attack again. Even though you know that the process keeps repeating itself, it gives you a feeling of fulfilment, knowing that you’re helping to make a difference. Our oceans are in great danger and we need all the help we can get. Together we can create a better world!
Let me remind you again: Reduce – Reuse – Recycle.
Microplastic Survey – Akumal, Mexico
Until I joined Operation Wallacea (Opwall) as a volunteer Research Assistant, I must admit I had no idea how bad the situation was. One morning, when the sea was too rough for diving, we were assigned a microplastic survey. Even though we operated from a marine-protected area, I was shocked to see how much microplastic we found.
Microplastics are one of the biggest issues facing ocean life. Their impact on marine animals, ecosystems, and, ultimately, human health is huge. In order to do something about it, we need to know the type, location, and quantity of the plastic; hence the microplastic surveys, which help scientists around the world gather as much information as possible.
So, that beautiful sunny morning, we went down to the beach with a quadrant, two buckets, a sieve mesh, a spoon, and a tray, looking for pieces of plastic that were less than 5 mm in size. We used sieves with a 1-mm mesh, as this is the size range that is most easily swallowed by seabirds and medium-sized fish that might be caught for human consumption.
Microplastics are divided into two main groups: primary and secondary plastics. Primary plastics are products that are manufactured small to start with, such as microbeads found in personal care products and plastic fibers used in synthetic textiles. Secondary microplastics are larger plastic products that have degraded over time. They include plastic bottles, plastic bags, and fishing nets. We worked on a 25-m stretch of shoreline as one single sample wouldn’t provide enough data. The minimum sample size is five times a 1-m2 quadrant. Within each quadrant, 10-cm samples are taken five times. Each quadrant should ideally be 5 m apart. Once we had selected the survey area, we laid out the quadrant and took five random sand samples from the 1-m2 quadrant. The sand was collected in a bucket with seawater, which was stirred to release the plastic from the sand. The water was then poured through the sieve into the other bucket. From the sieve, microplastics were transferred to the tray. We then moved along our selected survey line, repeated the process five times, and finished off our first scientific microplastic survey. The samples were then analyzed and entered into the system.
As I mentioned earlier, I was shocked by the findings. Do you know that plastic has been found in 59% of sea birds, 100% of sea turtle species, and more than 25% of fish sampled from seafood markets around the world? Do you know that the average person ingests 5 g of plastic each week, the equivalent of a credit card? We must help protect our ocean and the millions of species that call it home. If that doesn’t do it for you, think about your own health. This horrible reality has made me change my lifestyle. I recycle, take my own mug to the coffee shop, my own bags to the supermarket, and avoid plastic wherever I can. What about you? Have these facts had any impact on your life? Only together can we work towards a better world!
Wake up, work, sleep, repeat. Was this what I really wanted? I’d been existing in an environment where nothing was ever good enough, where there was a constant need for more, and it suddenly felt so empty.
Realizing how blessed I have been my whole life, I wondered what I was actually giving back. And that’s when it hit me. Instead of just striving for a bigger career, in an ungrateful environment, it was time to contribute to something greater. It was time to give meaning to my life. It was time to start thinking how I could not only bring satisfaction to my own life, but also to that of others. It was time to pay it forward.
I decided to look at volunteering options. Working with children was the first thing that came to mind, finding a way to help them build towards a better future. As a result, my trip to Peru was the first to take shape. It then became more difficult. What else could I do? The whole point was to figure out what would work for me, as I wanted to make this a permanent fixture in my life. It’s not just about donating money, it’s also about physically contributing, taking the time to contribute, and being hands-on. When an acquaintance suggested I do something connected to diving, because diving and the ocean are my passion, I knew this was something I had to explore. After doing some thorough research, I decided to join Operation Wallacea, known as Opwall.
Opwall is an organization that operates a series of biological and conservation management research programs in remote locations across the world. These expeditions are designed with specific wildlife conservation aims in mind—from identifying areas that need protection, through to implementing and assessing conservation management programs. I decided to volunteer at their marine-based research expedition in Akumal, Mexico as a Research Assistant. And what an experience that was! Apart from taking me back to basics, it taught me so much about how we are killing our oceans! I had been so blind until the day I joined Opwall; this experience was a real eye-opener.
But let me start at the very beginning of the expedition. Before I arrived in Akumal, I didn’t really know what to expect. As I’d joined the marine-based research expedition, I thought I’d be sleeping at a beachfront residence. I couldn’t have been more wrong. The bus from Cancun dropped us at the side of the road, where we then had to transfer our luggage into cars so that we could reach our accommodation, which was in the middle of nowhere. Yes, indeed, no nice beachfront villa, but welcome to the jungle! There I was, scared of anything that crawls, in the middle of a jungle with snakes, scorpions, spiders, and a whole lot more! Having a scorpion visit us in our room on the first night was terrifying and I had to get over my fears quickly.
Coral Mapping as a volunteer research assistant in Akumal, Mexico
Moving on to the sleeping arrangements… I was sharing a dorm, something I hadn’t done in over 20 years! I am a very private person, so this was another challenge. I have to say that I was very lucky to share a dorm with very lovely ladies. There was a lot of respect and appreciation between us all which made it easier. I struggled more with the air-conditioning rule: it was turned on from 8.30 pm until 5.30 am. Not being able to control the air-conditioner was something that I didn’t particularly like. And the same with the cold showers! How I enjoyed my first hot shower after the expedition! I never knew one could get so much pleasure out of something we so take for granted. We did have a pool, though, surrounded by hammocks (one of my favorite places to read). But I never figured out how on earth it was possible to get so many mosquito bites on my buttocks, so reading time in the hammock soon came to an end.
What I learned from all that is, as a city girl, I adapted to the whole situation in the blink of an eye. I was there for a purpose and I just settled in.
After being put on an intensive Coral Reef Ecology Course, I was ready to collect as much data as possible. As a Research Assistant and advanced diver, my main responsibility was to collect coral data through coral mapping (shown in the above pictures). It was important for me to know the most important corals so I could spot them and look for healthy ones that were at least half a meter long. Once found, I measured their length, width, height, and depth and decided on mortality %. The time taken from getting into the water to the location of the coral also had to be recorded, as well as the coral code and type. Once back from the dive, I would do the data entry.
Everything during the trip was timed to precision: 6 am breakfast , 7 am pick up by the van, 7.30 am dive (coral mapping), 10 am data analysis, 11 am lunch, 12 pm dive (coral mapping), 1 pm data entry, 3 pm snorkel transect, 5 pm transfer to base, and 6.30 pm dinner. After either a short course or presentation after dinner, I’d be in bed by 8 pm!
What exactly was the aim of the expedition? It was all to do with coral, an animal that has survived on this planet for more than 200 million years and is now in extreme danger. More than 500 million people depend on healthy coral reefs for food and millions more rely on thriving reefs to drive their tourism-based economies. Coral reefs protect coastal communities by creating natural sea walls that dramatically diffuse wave energy and storm surges. They also serve as underwater rainforests, regulating atmospheric gases. They provide medicinal benefits for humans and are home to a quarter of all marine life. However, in the last 30 years, half of the world’s coral reefs have been lost. Unprecedented bleaching, a stress response that leaves corals vulnerable to massive die-offs, has devastated reefs. A warmer planet increases the frequency of bleaching events, which reduces the time corals have to recover from the previous bleaching and increases their chances of dying. But the corals and their internal algae do more than just help each other survive. They also suck down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere—reducing the severity of climate-change effects—and generate oxygen. Bleaching occurs when corals are stressed by too-warm or too-cool waters, a more acidic ocean, or local factors such as sediment and polluted runoff. As a result, the corals expel the algae living inside them, leaving their bony skeletons a translucent white.
So, in a race against time, researchers have been experimenting with breeding “super coral” to counter the effects of climate change on the world’s reefs. You may know that corals reproduce sexually. All individual corals spawn on the same night of the year. Before spawning, the gamete bundles sit at the polyp opening, ready to be released. The “setting,” but also the hungry invertebrates on and around the colonies, indicate that the coral will likely spawn soon. Like us, they await the release of gamete bundles during mass spawning events. Each year, Caribbean corals reproduce during a mass spawning event timed by the summer full moon. The team monitors their spawn, collects gametes, and conducts fertilization. In this way, we support the reproduction of corals and help save the ocean!
Last Monday I’d attended the WILL Summit. What an inspirational day it was! The stage was filled with strong women, each with their own fascinating stories. The amount of inspiration that was spread around the room is hard to describe. Very empowering! My biggest thank you goes out to @mariaconceicao of the #mariacristinafoundation. Her story has touched me in many ways and gave me the push I needed. I have been nurturing a dream for a while now, but pushed it away for another year. When I was listening to Maria’s story, it suddenly hit me and I said to myself ‘What are you waiting for Valerie?’. So today I’ve got the ball rolling to work towards realizing my dream and hopefully be able to fulfill hopes and dreams of many girls and women. Watch this space for a big announcement to be made before the end of this year. Thank you #WILLsummit for creating such important, inspiring, empowering day. And thank you @mariaconceicao for the wake up call and take action.