Salta, Argentina. The locals call it la linda – the beautiful. At first glance, it’s easy to see why. Arriving fresh from a month spent in a poor town in the Peruvian Andes, Salta’s refined streets practically glittered. Designer clothes boutiques stand beside upmarket souvenir shops, leading to the central Plaza, where well-heeled locals sit at pavement cafes, sipping espressos. The cathedral – pale pink with ornate white adornments – certainly takes the prize for one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. But this is only one side of Salta, the tourist-friendly face. I was soon to discover another side to the city, which is a different picture entirely.
I had come to spend a few weeks volunteering at the David Mather Foundation. It is a charity which helps to improve the prospects of disadvantaged young people in Salta, founded and run by Ian and Ceri Mather, British semi-expats. They set up the charity in memory of their son David, who sadly died in a paragliding accident in Salta three years ago. David had seen the huge divisions in Salta’s society and the abject conditions in which the indigenous communities live, compared with the luxurious lifestyles of those of European descent. He was keen to do something to help, so his parents are fulfilling his wish.
Working with teenagers is not an area I’ve had much experience in – I’m more used to dealing with children who can’t yet tie their own shoelaces – but I was interested in the project and figured that students who turn up to attend early-morning classes of their own free will are probably not grumpy adolescent types.
Over my first breakfast at the centre, any doubts I had were completely washed away. Ian first introuced me to a couple of the staff members, who were delightful. We began to prepare coffee together as a few students trickled in. Ian explained that attendance was optional that week because it was the school holidays, but eight or nine students turned up, greeted me warmly and began laughing and joking over their pastries and hot chocolate.
We spent the ‘holiday’ sessions playing games and making displays for the classrooms and I got to know the students better. They are without exception, funny, bright, motivated youngsters with the drive and determination to succeed. They asked me about where I came from, what England was like, what my family was like, comparing their siblings with mine on the irritating stakes. The girls put on Rihanna songs and we’d make posters while singing along. The boys won me over with their cheeky humour and their kindness – slyly asking me to wash up their breakfast dishes one minute, fetching me a chair the next.
On my third day, Ian took me to see where the students lived. We drove to the edge of town and turned into a district where paved roads and permanent-looking buildings disappeared. Ian pointed out the small breeze-block houses, little more than shelters with sheets of corrugated iron as rooves, held on with stones and tyres. In one of these tiny places, families, in some cases with six or seven members, lived. There was not a white face to be seen. It was from here that the foundation’s students came every day, some of them travelling for an hour to reach the centre, before coming back again for a full day of school. They all turn up looking smart and well-presented, usually on time. You realise what an extraordinary thing that is when you see where they come from. Breakfast is provided at the centre because they don’t get it at home.
Over the next couple of weeks, we ran personal and social development sessions with the students, in addition to their English and Maths lessons, aiming to help them get onto a university course when they leave school. Some of last year’s cohort are now at university and doing brilliantly, but they still come back to the centre to study when they have free time. They like coming because it gives them somewhere quiet to study and there are a few networked computers for them to use, which greatly helps with homework tasks and improves their ICT literacy.
The pressure on Ian and Ceri to keep the centre running is huge. They have to pay their staff, keep up with ever-increasing rent and overheads, find sponsorship to help the students through university and keep this brilliant group motivated and on track. They are engaging the students and teaching them real-world business and interpersonal skills, setting them up for success. The Argentinean government has ignored their calls for funding, despite the proven effects that the project is already having. For a while, they bought fresh fruit to give the students a healthy breakfast and help to educate them about a healthy lifestyle, but that became simply too expensive. Despite all of this, these two incredible people are not prepared to fail Salta’s forgotten youth and despite the constant struggle to find sufficient funding, they have increased their intake this year by 45 to over 70 students. If they can raise the funds to employ one of their key staff members full time, they could increase this figure again. It’s almost overwhelming to think of the ripple effect this could have through their communities and through Argentinean society.
I understand that it would be hard for you to feel as passionately about this charity as I do, but If you wwould like to learn more about the David Mather Foundation, donate, or learn about ways you can help, please visit their website.