Helping others, free of cost

Libros Para Niños is a non-profit organisation with the intent of setting up potential volunteers with volunteering opportunities free of charge

Paid for and posted by Libros Para Niños. To find out more, visit their website. 

It’s the typical plight of all too many Oxford undergraduates as they look ahead towards the summer: “I want to go abroad and volunteer… but the cost.”

And it’s strange, almost contradictory: organisations charge exorbitant fees for the ‘privilege’ of doing volunteer work. Meanwhile, local law and finance firms are offering job experience and £15 an hour to do work in an office less than an hour from home. At the very least, shouldn’t flying out to help others be affordable?

This is the predicament that Libros Para Niños (LPN), a non-profit organisation launched and run by Oxford students, works to address. LPN emerged first as a book donating programme before developing into a travelling library. Today it helps place volunteers in service programs to work with local organisations and schools in struggling communities and regions across Latin America: in Panama, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

And LPN makes its placements for free: unlike ‘gap year’ companies or other volunteering organisations, which charge a fortune to place volunteers in schools in Latin America, LPN places its volunteers in programs without them having to pay a cent.

Founded by Dori Gilinski, herself the daughter of a Colombian father and Panamanian mother, LPN is by and large staffed by Oxonians whose experiences volunteering have shaped their worldviews – and who want as many fellow Oxford students to be able to have the same experience.

Gilinski and the rest of LPN’s team started with the initial purpose of collecting books through book drives and delivering them to compromised communities in developing countries across Latin America. But since 2010, as they came to realise how being forced to pay one’s one way was a problem for so many, LPN has connected people who want to help with volunteering opportunities, while providing support and advice throughout the duration of each trip.

LPN’s team is made of idealists, ambitious ones. Their mission: to catalyze a movement that engages colleges, schools, companies, governments and social enterprises and restructures the way current volunteer and teaching assistant placements are done.

It’s important work. The World Bank has written that getting good education is one of the most important challenges facing Latin America in 2016. LPN’s team is global, with staff members in cities as diverse as New York, London, Tegucigalpa and Tel Aviv. And they hope to leverage that global reach to place volunteers in programs where they can make the biggest impact – again, all for free.

LPN staff talk about why they started volunteering

President & CEO Dori Gilinski (Brasenose, Philosophy and Modern Languages, matriculation 2008):

“The time I spent volunteering in Panama forever changed me. It presented me with a reality that was worlds away from what I live day to day as a Philosophy and Modern Languages undergrad at Oxford. There were neither chairs nor desks, few books and no maps in that barren classroom. In the very same country where skyscrapers fill the air, and the motorway extends for hundreds of miles, six-year-old Yolanda came to class day after day suffering from stomach upsets because clean drinking water is limited in rural Panama.

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“Despite the HDI continuing to rise (in 2011, Panama placed 58 of 187 countries), Panama has the second highest inequitable distribution of income in the Western Hemisphere. The significant economic growth the country has experienced over recent years does little to remedy the bleak levels of poverty. The World Bank recently reported that more than 1/3 of Panamanians live in poverty and nearly 15% in extreme poverty (that is, they live on less than $1/day).

“As my trip progressed, I began to question things. I felt guilty for how easy it was easy for me to go back and forth between Oxford and rural, backward San Vicente, but could I honestly say that the young children I was teaching would grow up to do the same? The economy is certainly booming and this will undoubtedly generate jobs, but will it help the uneducated poor or rather push them further and further behind as their homelands get absorbed by urban expansion and as the jobs that are created require a skilled workforce?”

Head of Development Christina Moorhouse (Brasenose, History, matriculated 2008):

“Volunteering in a school in Latin America gave such an incredible insight into the lives of the people I was working with. Living and working so closely within a community gave me a unique view of the dynamics within the society, the everyday concerns, hopes and dreams of the families, and how the children see their place within the community. This felt like an extremely personal experience, and one that will stay with me for a long time.

“The children that we work with are the future of the societies. The family and community ties are hugely important, so by investing in the children you are giving not only them a brighter future, but the whole community.

“I felt I learnt a huge amount both about the community in which I was working, but also about myself. It presented a whole new set of challenges to anything I had done before, and probably will do again, but I find the way that it shaped how I approach things is valuable every day.

“The challenges facing these children in gaining an education and their determination to do so despite this is so impressive.

“Access to a proper education is something we take for granted in the UK, but my experience volunteering made me appreciate it all the more how lucky we are, and how important it is to do something for those who are less fortunate and try to help give them a good start in life.”

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Education Advisor Hector Keate (LMH, Maths and Philosophy, matriculated 2008):

“Whilst the primary aim of volunteering is to instigate direct economic and social impact on communities, students considering volunteering should also look at it in the context of broadening their skill set as they approach the job market. When selecting from a pool of highly able candidates, modern employers are keen to hire those students who not only exhibit passion and drive, but also those that have has international experience and have demonstrated commitment to wider social and ethical values.

“Speaking from my own experience, I turned down an internship at a top London consulting firm in order to go to Central America, visiting both educational and social development projects. Rather than harming my chances of employment, the firm was impressed by my attitude and ended up fast-tracking me through the graduate recruitment process and offering me a job.”

Scholarship Manager Emily Hawes (Brasenose, English, matriculated 2008):

“Volunteering in a Centre for Disabled Children in Ecuador was one of the most formative experiences of my life to date, and something I believe has been instrumental to my outlook on life since then.

“Before going to South America, I’d never really done anything that took me outside of my own environment. It taught me to really put myself in the shoes of someone else and reconsider my own assumptions of what it means to be happy and fulfilled.

“I spent six months working in Quito, Ecuador’s capital with children with varying disabilities, whose parents didn’t have the resources to look after them in the daytime. Every day, I was their own source of entertainment other than nurses who came to help feed and change them. Some of the children were as young as six months old, although the age range went up to ten.

“Helping those children, even on a day to day level, was a profoundly fulfilling experience. I knew no matter how mundane the task (feeding, changing, helping them finger paint!) I was making the children feel valued, and helping them to be stretched and challenged in a day which would otherwise have been blank for them. In a society where disabled children are largely sidelined and ignored, the appreciation you could see on the faces of the children (and the overworked nurses) was something I’ll never forget.

“For a school leaver about to embark on the real world, a volunteering experience is eye-opening: its challenging, different, difficult, confusing, fulfilling – and helps you ask the kind of questions that you continue to grapple with throughout your career and life. How do you want to make your mark on the world? How can you work in a way that will help others?

“These are the questions six-months’ volunteering sparked for me, and it’s this kind of inspiration we’re hoping to bring our volunteers for LPN.”