¡Encontrá Manos!, or “Find the hands”
We interviewed Melina, Ismael and Gaspar, volunteers of the “Encontrá Manos” project that tries to generate spaces of help in Argentina to transform the realities of the communities they encounter.
“We do not have the solutions to the world’s problems in our hands. But in the face of the world’s problems we have our own hands”, reads the home page of the website of the “Encontrá Manos” volunteer project.
Their story began in 2012, when a group of students and teachers from the Institute “Nuestra Señora de Luján” of Buenos Aires went to Tostado, a city in the province of Santa Fe, with the desire to help redecorate a school and discover a social reality different from the one they have already known in their neighborhood of Buenos Aires.
The rest of the story we can hear directly from some of the volunteers of the association: from Melina Chiapparo, who is 21 years old and is studying to become a teacher; from Ismael Azar, 22 years old, preparing for the profession of elementary teacher, volunteer to the project for 7 years; and from Gaspar López Cook, who has the same age as Ismael, and he is currently studying industrial engineering, with a volunteering experience of about 2 years.
They explain that since that first trip to Tostado, the number of participating students has increased, the activities have evolved towards more local and frequent initiatives during the year, but the annual trip to Santa Fe has never been interrupted, to give continuity to the initiatives put in place and to the relationship established with the people involved.
In 2016, the large number of young people involved, the multiplicity of ongoing projects, and the desire to involve people outside of the school community gave rise to the need to become independent from the “Nuestra Señora de Luján” Institute and to create a civil, educational and social association with the name “Bajar a la calle” (Take to the streets): which wants to be a place capable of generating change in the reality that surrounds us.
Today, there are more than 200 volunteers working as a team, with a central management team, several commissions and many coordinators for the various projects. There are more than 22 ongoing projects, ranging from visits to nursing homes for the elderly, school support for children in suburban areas, work in schools for children with disabilities, to being with homeless people. An interesting detail is that all the initiatives are carried out in collaboration with other; state, religious, private or community institutions, pursuing a common goal through networking.
Everything was going well until the beginning of the pandemic: how to continue to accompany the people of these 22 initiatives and, above all, the 200 volunteers? Because a particular and special detail of this type of volunteering is the continuous training of volunteers. It is not a common volunteer service, where the committed person comes in, gives their time for a couple of hours and then leaves. The most interesting and special aspect of Encontrá Manos is the philosophy behind it, which tries to transform the hearts of the volunteers, trying to change their way of thinking, hoping to generate a greater change in society…
Gaspar says that one of the things that caught his attention the most when he started to get involved was the monitoring by the other volunteers, who wanted to make sure that he felt comfortable, and that he had all the necessary information about the initiative that he had committed himself to undertake… This made him feel good, cared for and accompanied by the members of the Association. An experience that he had never experienced in other volunteer realities and that continued even during the pandemic, through a fluid communication and also through the continuation of the initiatives – as far as possible – in a virtual way. For example, with the continuation of school support through video calls, virtual discourse and… also something unexpected: the opening of a community canteen, to distribute food and other basic necessities to many families who are going through serious economic difficulties.
“After making sure it was safe, following all the protocols, we opened a canteen on 1 June. And the truth is: it was a success,” says Melina, “made possible thanks to the many people who donated their money, allowing us at this difficult time to be close to many families and to distribute 140 meals a day.
Ismael explains that it was not easy to make this decision, because in addition to the fact that they did not have the financial means to do so, they were very concerned that this initiative had a welfarist imprint, when their style of volunteering instead tries to generate a personal contact, a bond of accompaniment. However, things went incredibly well. From one day to the next, the bank where the Association’s bank account is located informed them that they had won a prize. Thanks to this, within a few months, it was possible to purchase what was needed to get the canteen up and running, despite the emergency. In addition, according to Melina, the volunteers were able to transform their food delivery service into a real meeting with the families in need. Moments that they tried to make happier and sweeter even by hiding a dessert in the delivery box!
So, when you ask her if it is worth dedicating your time to such an initiative, Melina reflects: “The truth is that when I discovered this possibility, it changed my life, and opened my eyes and I could no longer close them. I think it is worthwhile to keep trying to change reality starting from what we can do, which is not much, but it is something anyway”.
“I am very grateful to this project, because it made me see things from another point of view and learn a lot about different realities, about which others, perhaps, have prejudices. I feel lucky, explains Ismael; I think that what we do here contributes to transforming society, even if we don’t always realize it, and that it is important to continue to create this possibility of encounter, so as to involve more and more people”.
But there is more. Ismael remembers that one day, Natalia, one of the teachers who promoted “Encontrá Manos”, made a comment that had an impact on him:
There are systems and societies that may work better than others, but until people’s hearts change, everything else can be corrupted.
It is the transformation of hearts what is needed, even that of our own hearts. He explains: “One day on a train, I realized that I didn’t look at the people who were passing by to beg or sell me something, until I recognized Andrea, a woman I had met through volunteering. A person with a name and a story. From that moment on I was no longer indifferent to those who pass by me”.
And Melina concludes: “The hearts of those who are part of Encontrá Manos change and, in some way, perhaps, the reality of those we go to help during the week changes a bit… and does this make sense? We are certain that this meeting is worth it and that, in its own way, it is already changing the world”.