I am a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire in the USA. I normally don’t teach in the summer. Instead, I devote most of my time to research and writing. But this summer (winter in Argentina) I did something quite different -- I worked as a volunteer at a community soup kitchen in Buenos Aires.
I had little idea of what to expect when I contacted Voluntario Global, a locally-based organization that arranged my volunteer work. I knew that I would be much older than my fellow volunteers, most of whom would be in their early 20s. Since my Spanish was limited, I was a bit concerned about the language barrier and signed up for Spanish lessons in the afternoons, after my work in the kitchen. These lessons turned out to be a valuable part of my experience in Buenos Aires and in doing so helped me to build close relationships with the people that I worked with in the kitchen.
The kitchen is in a neighborhood where many residents, including immigrants from elsewhere in South America, struggle financially and otherwise. The cooks are an amazing group of women who live in or near the community and provide warm meals everyday to their less fortunate neighbors.
I worked alongside volunteers from North America and Western Europe. All were a lot younger than me. Many were college students, the type of young people I teach in the US. While the soup kitchen is not a formal classroom, I discovered that it is a place where people learn in ways that are not possible in a traditional school.
Of course, we learned how to help prepare large quantities of food, but more valuable was what we learned about the women’s lives, the community in which they live, and the people they serve. This is what educators call Experiential Learning and as a teacher, not only was I enriched by my experience taking on the role of a “student” in this unconventional “classroom”, I came to see that such learning is invaluable and will encourage, if not demand, that my students consider volunteer work in parts of the world much different than their own.