In a sparse field in Paraguay, two groups of children crouch facing each other, their small fingers digging into the soft dirt. Their eyes flicker between senior Jacob Frankel, who stands out of the field of play, and the object in between themselves and their opponents: a dirty, wrapperless water bottle.
Then Frankel makes his move. “Cuatro!” he shouts, and the game begins.
One child from each group launches themselves to their feet and races as fast as they can toward the water bottle that at any other point in time would be a piece of trash.
But today the water bottle is not waste. It is the “Mandioca” (a starchy, white root vegetable available at every meal), as in the game “Steal the Mandioca”—or as you probably know it, “Steal the Bacon.”
And this was only one of the games Frankel played with these children this summer. As a volunteer with Amigos de las Américas, a nonprofit organization that, according to their website, aims to inspire and build young leaders through collaborative community development and immersion, Frankel spent eight weeks in a small village of 200, working with elementary-aged children as well as the rest of the community. While there, he was attempting to “apo no audior” or “assist, not help.”
“A lot of people who do community service say, ‘We’re going to go to help the poor people’—but that’s not what we were doing,” Frankel said. “We were going to get the youth involved, to facilitate working together.”
Frankel initially heard about the organization from Spanish teacher Patricia Portillo who, two years before, had suggested Sarah Fleming, ’11, volunteer with them. Once Frankel told his parents about Amigos, he learned they, too, had volunteered with the organization while they were in college.
He applied to Amigos programs in Peru, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Nicaragua, and nine months later found himself dropped off by a bus in the tiny cam
po (countryside or village) of Cerro Cora with only a small packet of information, his bag, and Val Frank, his partner in the mission.
And with three parts to Frankel’s project, that’s exactly what it was—a mission.
Over the course of the eight weeks, Frankel and his partner would have to organize the Campamentos, Somos el Presente, and a Community Based Initiative (CBI).
The Campamentos (“Camps”) and Somos el Presente (“We are the Present”) were time devoted to working with the youth of the campo.
Campamentos took place once a day—Frankel and Frank would divide the older kids (third and fourth graders) from the younger kids and work with each group for one hour, educating them on topics such as reforestation, oral hygiene and proper eating habits. Each topic was introduced with a game such as “Toothbrush Tag,” “Tree Club,” or the ever-popular “Steal the Mandioca.”
But working with the children wasn’t easy, and language quickly became a barrier.
Because the younger children had not been exposed to Spanish in the school as long, many of the children spoke only Guaraní, the local language of the campo (Spanish is confined mainly to the cities, as it is the language of commerce).
“I had been told some people spoke Guaraní, but it wasn’t very prominent, and that the rest spoke Spanish,” Frankel said. “But every person in my community spoke Guaraní perfectly, and not a lot of Spanish.”
Somos el Presente occurred less frequently. Twice a week for an hour, Frankel and Frank led a photography class, which culminated in the kids taking photos with film cameras supplied by Amigos and entering their pictures in a project-wide competition.
The final part of the mission, the CBI, was to organize a project that the entire community decided on. Frankel and his partner acted as facilitators, not laborers, and with the $350 awarded to them by Amigos, funded the building of a pileta, or dishwashing station. The community had wanted to build a kitchen for their school, but it exceeded the budget.
So Frankel and Frank applied for a grant of $1000 to build the kitchen—and they got it.
A fundraiser was organized within the community to demonstrate the project was something everyone wanted and the community was not “leeching off an American community service organization,” and a festival was held at the local school.
In support of the fundraiser, Frankel and Frank made and sold chocolate chip cookies.
The pair, along with Frankel’s two host brothers, walked an hour into the nearest pueblo to buy the ingredients. The store didn’t have chocolate chips, so they settled on a chocolate bar, and instead of butter, they had to buy margarine. They baked the cookies at Frankel’s host uncle’s house in their convection oven—the only one Frankel knew of in the community.
“We wanted to give them something American—everyone in that entire community had given us so much, from food to companionship, and we felt like we needed to give back,” Frankel said.
Despite the time commitment of his project, Frankel feels it was the time he spent with his host family (his parents, Miguel and Ignasia, his brothers, Demitrio, Angel and Isidrio, and his sisters, Belen and Elisa) he will remember the most.
“My host dad is one of my favorite people,” he said. “On Sundays when the rest of my family went to visit the grandparents, he and I would just hang out all day. One time we talked about what happens after you die. Another time we chopped down sugar cane and fed it to cows.”
And while Frankel did live with his host parents, they were not the only family he grew close to over the eight weeks he was there.
Because his host mom could not afford to feed him every day, she set up a system with the rest of the families in the campo for Frankel to rotate from house to house for various meals.
It was on one of these treks across the campo that Frankel and Frank came across a “different” member of the community.
A very poor woman with her three children and three dogs lived off the path through the woods in a home Frankel described as “some boards nailed up in a circle.” The children didn’t attend school (and therefore did not know Spanish), and no one in the family brushed their teeth.
It was dark. Frankel and Frank were making their way back to their homes, when out of the bushes three snarling dogs surrounded and circled them.
“They were the largest dogs I ever saw there—I stopped short, held my hands up in surrender and tried to ‘shh’ them. They ran away, but from that point on whenever we walked by the house at night we carried sticks and stones,” Frankel said.
Still, the pair was circled two more times before the end of the trip, and then one evening in the middle of dinner his host uncle heard barking.
“He grabbed a gun, ran outside and we heard two shots,” Frankel said. “He came back in, his mood no different, and told us he had shot the dogs.”
The dogs had belonged to the woman.
“(My host uncle) was perfectly fine—the dogs had been trying to steal his chickens, but they were all this woman had,” he said.
On some days Frankel’s host mother couldn’t find a house for him to eat at—so she sent them to school to have lunch.
He remembers one occasion when the teachers prepared a meal of seared chicken, potato salad, bread and guarana soda.
Also having lunch were the school children, but rather than the teachers sharing the food they had prepared for Frank and Frankel with them, all the kids got were bowls of rice.
“The kids just sat there and watched us eat our heaping plates of food,” Frankel said.
“I felt like Major Major Major from ‘Catch-22’ when he’s promoted and Milo makes him eat better food than the rest of the men.”
But Frankel’s frequent visits to all households in the campo were marked by more positive experiences than negative ones.
“I became part of the community—everyone knows everyone, and everyone is family. People just call you over, offer you some yerba mate (a highly caffeinated herbal tea) or some food, like tortillas or beef stew. That’s how it is,” he said.
And returning to the United States made Frankel realize just how different the countries actually are.
“Here it is so different—coming back to all the hustling and bustling is super weird. In Paraguay, everything is tranquilo (“calm”). People say come at 3 p.m, you show up at 6 p.m. Ninety nine percent of the time I was just sitting around, talking to people.”
The night before Frankel returned home, his host mom went into labor. Frankel was home with his host parents and sisters, and his host dad approached him, saying he needed to take his wife to the hospital and needed Frankel to stay to watch Belen and Elisa.
“He was saying he trusted me as a member of the family. I didn’t realize until then how much the Amigos idea meant to me.”
The next day, Frankel and Frank took a bus out of the campo and flew home. One week later, Frankel received a call saying the kitchen and pileta were complete—and the entire community, including the youth, had showed up to build them.