It's 7:15am and we are waiting at the bus stop with our volunteer, Sandesh, who has been volunteering at the kindergarten in the suburb of Barracas for the past couple of weeks. Whilst we are waiting, Sandesh tells us a little bit about the place – how it is not only a kindergarten, but also a soup kitchen and a community centre and that whilst some who work there are teachers, others are simply mums volunteering to help keep it afloat. “It is a safe place for them to come and play, if only a few hours,” he explains, “They get two decent meals, affection they might not otherwise get at home and a chance to play with other kids.”
We are the only ones who get off at our stop and we make our way down a pretty cobbled street. The closer we get to the kindergarten, the more broken the houses are; corrugated iron roofs are placed delicately over half-built brick walls, wooden doors mask the dark indoors, and faces look intriguingly at us because we look like tourists and tourists don't usually bother with their neighbourhood.
We make our way past the crowd of parents outside the white brick, gated building of the kindergarten. Sandesh later explains that the parents aren't allowed to enter with their child as there have been incidents in the past. The building itself is decorated with bright colours and pictures of butterflies and bees and trees. Sandesh introduces us to the woman who runs the place. She is very warm and friendly, pleased we are taking an interest in the kindergarten.
Now the day has officially begun: our volunteer joins the other helpers, all women, in seating the children at the appropriately-coloured table. The children here range from as young as 1 or 2 up to 6. Sandesh’s responsibilities lie with those aged between 2 and 4. They tap gently at his pockets or however high they can reach, they try and grab onto his fingers or even put their hands to his face in affection. Once they are just about all seated, breakfast comes around: a mug of milk and a breakfast bar.
Getting the children up a flight of stairs is a feat like no other. Helpers have up to four children at a time clinging onto them for support, their short legs not providing enough for them. Of the 22 children, there are three who stand out in their matching checkered overcoats, a demarcation that they have come from the orphanage. We are told that one used to live on the streets, the other’s mother was an alcoholic. As their helper recounts their tales, she wants to emphasise the importance of this place.
After a morning of painting, throwing balls around and playing on the slides and seesaws outside it is lunchtime already! Sandesh takes this opportunity to warn us just how much mess these children are capable of, “Lunchtime is hectic to say the least.” What's more, today is dulce de leche day… By the end, it looks like the kids have been given the food to paint the walls with. Covered from head to toe, they sway about the place through the benches, over them and under them. But although it is hectic, there is something moving about it: they are happy with the helpers laughing kindly at them and, most importantly, they are safe.
After spending just a morning at the kindergarten, the charm of the place is not lost on us, nor is it lost on Sandesh. “I absolutely love it,” he says. Although his volunteering officially finished this week, he's going to continue popping into the kindergarten to lend a helping hand for as long as he's in the city. “I'm not ready to leave just yet.”