Section title text:  Archived News.

A Gap Year with a Difference

by Katie Patterson, a former student of Upton Hall School FCJ Wirral

Photo: Katie with a Bolivian child.Hello!  I am Katie Patterson and I would like to share with you my experiences of working in an FCJ community in South America as part of my  ‘gap year.’ I was with Claudia Ballinger, another Upton Hall student.  Apart from seeing the world and improving my Spanish I wanted to do some voluntary work in a community less privileged than our own.  I was able to spend time working in a school for disabled children in Santiago del Estero in the north of Argentina   Sister Stephanie Earle fcJ runs the school.  Sister Stephanie is one of the nine FCJ sisters who live in three different communities in South America

The average salary amongst Santiguanians, (the people of Santiago del Estero is $250 (pesos) which a £50 per month.  Around 30% of Photo: Group of children in school.the population are unemployed and up to a third of those under
sixteen years of age do not go to school..  This is partly because they lack the money to buy shoes and school clothing.  It is awful to think that some children do not even get one chance at succeeding in life.  If they do not learn to read or write there is no hope of them finding employment or moving away.  Inevitably they follow in their parents footsteps, starting families at as young an age as thirteen.

The school run by Sr Stephanie has almost a hundred children and a handful of adults who attend school everyday.  The school began about thirteen years ago and started out as two classrooms in the convent.  Thanks to funds from the FCJ sisters and Sr Stephanie’s hard work the school is still growing.  It has new buildings, a new football pitch and a team of twelve local staff including a cook, a Photo: Group of children with Katie.psychologist and a physiotherapist.

One of the things the school ensures is that each child gets a complete meal every day even throughout the holidays.  For some it is their only meal of the day.  

In school, Claudia helped out in kindergarten, working with small children with Down Syndrome and severe autism.  I took some groups for art and helped out with the deaf pupils.  It was daunting walking into the class of ten hyperactive little boys and keeping them occupied on my own for an hour.  They did not understand any English and I had to speak in Spanish.  I am much more confident with my Spanish now!  It was important to get good results with the Photo: Playing with a child in the school.children.  I kept them enthusiastic, expanding their creativity regardless of their age or disability.  I got them to make things like a chain of paper dolls; we did leaf printing and painted butterflies etc.

During the last weeks of March, Santiago was affected by severe floods.  The entry in my dairy for March  31st reads:  “last week we could not make it into the country to pick the children up.  There was no electricity in school and the building was surrounded by almost 2 feet of water. 

Today we went out into the  country with Luciana, the school psychologist, to visit a mother from school whose house was destroyed by the floods.  Mercedes is a single parent with three Photo: Children in the villlage.children, two with cerebral palsy.  She has no hope of finding a job
in the country, and at the moment is sleeping on the ground under a wooden shelter with her family.  In my photos you can see the remains of her house in the background.  State housing is only available in the towns and for those who earn a certain wage.  There is nothing for the 30% unemployed.

On our last day in May we gave out the presents we had brought from England, things like sparkly pens, colourful notebooks and skipping ropes.  The children sang a goodbye song to us and we were presented with drawings and cards.  I had tears in my eyes!

We spent the last two months travelling through Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil and Peru.  We were able to meet so many people, witness ways of life so different to our own and take part in some amazing things.  We completed the Inca trail, watched the sun rise at Machu Picchu, stayed with a Peruvian family on Lake Titicaca the world’s highest navigable lake, mountain-biked down the world’s ‘most dangerous road,’ flew across the world’s driest desert to see the Nazca lines and stayed in the Amazon Jungle.  I could go on forever about so many awe-inspiring sights, but it was only through Upton that I got a chance to truly experience a life so far removed from ours.  Living in Santiago with Sr Steph opened my eyes to the kind of dedication and support the Faithful Companions of Jesus provide to the millions less fortunate than ourselves across the world. I have decided to take another year out before studying English at university.  I hope to travel to Indonesia and hopefully to visit the FCJ communities.

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