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David Mather Foundation

By on Dec 15, 2011 in Uncategorized | 14 comments

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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.

Salta cathedral

The Salta that the tourists see

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.

students in Salta

The David Mather Foundation Centre

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.

Salta, Argentina

The Salta the students know

 

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.

14 Comments

  1. Abby

    15 December 2011

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    What a post, Katy. So inspiring. It’s true that teenagers can be “forgotten” — but they are so bright and clever and need attention. I saw families living in tents like that in Central America. :(

    • Katy Stewart

      15 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thanks Abby :) Without being patronising at all, those students were some of the best people I’ve ever worked with, and they really are Argentina’s future. I’m amazed at what they are achieving and I miss them every day!

  2. Kate Turner

    16 December 2011

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    It sounds like Ian and Ceri (and their staff and volunteers) are doing a commendable job that truly makes a difference. Such a shame that the government won’t support their efforts, given that they’re clearly making a valuable impact. Your experience goes to show that there’s so much more to the countries we visit than the ‘tourist face’ we all see. A really inspiring post, Katy!

    • Katy Stewart

      17 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thanks Kate, it is an incredible project. Every city has their rich and poor parts, but in Salta, it’s extreme.

  3. Audrey

    16 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    I only spent a few days in Salta and unfortunately this is a side of the city that I never got to see. It sounds like the foundation is doing great work, I hope they continue to get the support they need.

    • Katy Stewart

      17 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thanks for your comment Audrey, it is a side of Salta that is not obvious to most people who visit, so getting the word out there is important.

  4. Krista

    17 December 2011

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    Oh Katy, I’m staggered by the image of where these kids live. I wish I could whisk them away to the farm where they could have a real roof over their heads and heaps of fresh food to eat. I’m so glad you were there to love on them for a bit, and even more glad that they have people like Ian and Ceri to be there for them day in and day out.

    • Katy Stewart

      17 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      It is a shocking thing to see, but their positivity and determination is really overwhelming – I just know that they’re going to do well :)

  5. Ceri and Ian

    17 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    Katy, thanks so much for your great article which does truly reflect the situation here and what we are trying to do. The Foundation would not exist without our volunteers and sponsors. The students talk about you often and your inspirational classroom displays are carefully maintained. Thanks so much for your time energy enthusiasm and support. Come back anytime you want!

    • Katy Stewart

      17 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Thank you Ceri, I’m glad the article reflects the Foundation accurately. I had a wonderful time with you in Salta and I miss the students – I would love to come back sometime :)

  6. It seems hard to imagine that a city with a bustling tourism economy could have so many teens live an abject poverty, but I suspect it’s more common than we know. Sounds like the David Mather Foundation Centre is working to give local kids a leg up. Thanks for sharing the story with Travel Bloggers Give Back.

    • Katy Stewart

      17 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      Unfortunately from what I’ve seen, this situation is replicated again and again across South America and across the world, but there are also projects working to change that. The dedication of the David Mather Foundation to the kids in Salta is unbelieveable.

  7. Margo

    17 December 2011

    Post a Reply

    I love hearing your uplifting perspective on such a great cause. The effort reminds me of a Mother Teresa quote: “We can do no great things; only small things with great love.”

    • Katy Stewart

      17 December 2011

      Post a Reply

      What a brilliant quote, Margo. Before this year, I wanted to change the world and was frustrated that I couldn’t. Now I realise the only way to change it is to do something small, but do it with all the love and passion I have.

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