Mares: Volunteering in Argentina

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(HOST) Recently, President Obama has been encouraging Americans to embrace volunteering, and Commentator Bill Mares couldn’t agree more.

(MARES) As President Obama was signing the law to expand national volunteer programs, I was working as a volunteer teaching beekeeping and English in a rural school in Patagonia, Argentina.  Compare their one inhabitant per square mile with Vermont’s 60 per square mile, and you can see that Patagonia is decidedly rural.  

The rugged landscape looks like parts of our Wild West at the time of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, who actually hid there for a couple of years before the final shoot-out in Bolivia. You could make Westerns in Patagonia ’til the cows come home.
The boarding school where I taught was founded 25 years ago by idealistic university graduates from Buenos Aires, who came to this remote region to teach Mapuche Indian children living in communities up to 300 miles away.  The school now has around 200 students, one third of them girls.  

From the beginning the school’s founders and teachers wove together the academic and "tech-ed" tracks.  To a traditional curriculum of history, English, math, computing and so on, they graft agro-technical courses such as forestation, beekeeping, vegetable gardens, animal husbandry, carpentry and basic electricity.  Thus, upon graduation, the young men and women can choose whether to go back to the countryside, move into the job market or even go to a university.  As of last year, 95% of the graduates either got jobs or went on to some kind of college.
The school raises most of its own meat, vegetables, and fruits, while students also do most of the manual labor around the campus.  In addition, the school annually sells about $30,000 worth of preserves, vegetables, eggs and honey in local markets.
About ten years after building the school, the founders realized that their mission was more than education; it had to include economic development in these impoverished regions to help provide jobs the graduates could return to.  Thus, students and teachers now do traineeships in their home communities in such activities as electrical wiring, green house construction and honey production.        

From the beginning, the school has welcomed volunteers with almost any talent, or even just muscle.  Last year nearly 350 volunteers came from Argentina and 10 other countries.
During my stay, the school also hosted a theater director, a Dutch graduate student studying community development, a weaver, and 25 high school students from Buenos Aires to work on the farm.
Something about all this seemed familiar.  And then it hit me. I had tasted this entree of collective action between students, teachers and volunteers before.  The proportions and spices were different.  But we had served this dish at C.V. U. high school where I taught – and in a host of other activities in Vermont.  In the words of the CVU mission mission statement, these people had become "…contributing members of a democratic society."

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