Volunteer Spotlight: Bobbie Baker

Volunteer Spotlight: Bobbie Baker

Volunteer Bobbie Baker recently moved back to the Twin Cities after retiring from her job as a food co-op finance manager in Northfield. Here’s how her path led to the Mano a Mano warehouse, and her thoughts on the value of her work.

Bobbie Baker, in the Mano a Mano warehouse

Bobbie Baker, in the Mano a Mano warehouse

How Did You Get Started Volunteering for Mano a Mano?

I attend the Groveland Unitarian Universalist Fellowship, and Mano a Mano’s Operations Manager, Carmen Paredes Dockry, came and spoke to us. Carmen said that they were getting ready to do a shipment of medical supplies to Bolivia. So I came and helped with that.

Then I started coming and helping Ray Wiedmeyer in the warehouse. I go to Goodwill with him and a couple other guys. We sort medical equipment at Goodwill for two and a half or three hours, then we bring it back here. Then on Wednesday morning I help Ray, sorting and packaging stuff back in the warehouse. We were palletizing some boxes this morning.

What Spoke to You When Carmen Described Mano a Mano’s Work?

I’ve been out of the city for a number of years. I was looking for places to volunteer and do something physically active. I spent my whole career sitting at a desk. I was not going to do that again. I grew up on a farm and was used to being around equipment. And once I started here I found some super people to be around. Ray and Karen, Carmen, Segundo are all very welcoming.

What Do You Feel You Get Out of Volunteering?

There’s the physical activity. And I’m doing something where I can see the immediate benefits for people. We’re providing folks in Bolivia with medical equipment they wouldn’t otherwise be able to get their hands on.

But it’s not just helping people in Bolivia. It’s helping the planet, because we’re recycling and reusing stuff that we’ve already used energy to make. I’m an anti-waste person. I hate seeing stuff go into the landfill. To manufacture something and then turn around and recycle it, that doesn’t make sense to me. If it can be reused, that’s better. This all fits together for me.

Special thanks to Tony Schmitz for volunteering to compile these Volunteer Spotlights!

More Mano a Mano Volunteer Spotlights

Below are a few more interviews with Mano a Mano volunteers that are so crucial to everything that we do. Are you interested in getting involved? Please contact us!

Helping Martha Walk Again

Helping Martha Walk Again

Our volunteer warehouse manager Ray Wiedmeyer just got back from a trip to Bolivia with Mano a Mano Co-Founder Segundo Velasquez, and while he was there he was able to take part in this donation of supplies and support from Mano a Mano to Martha, enabling her to walk for the first time in 9 years.

We have shipped 205,675 pounds of donated medical supplies – 9 40 foot containers – from Minnesota to Bolivia this year.

Here is Ray’s Post About the Donation to Martha:

“I would like you to meet Martha, today’s blessing for the world. Like you, I too just met her. Yet I feel like I have known her for years. The reason is that I spent a couple hours with her today and I saw her open a new chapter in her life.

Martha

Martha

You see Martha is one of the most amazing women I have ever met. And that smile….that smile hides a world of courage and tenacity like I have never seen before. You see, Martha has been struggling with a disease since about the age of three; a disease that would turn her body against her in many ways and would eventually take away her ability to walk for she would lose both legs below the knees within a three year period as a teenager.

What does that mean for a Bolivian youth in Cochabamba? It often means setting aside any dream of a normal life. You see the streets of Bolivia are not wheelchair accessible. Transportation is not accessible. Getting to a job would be near impossible. So you are left to stay at home and depend a lot on others.

But only a month ago she heard from an acquaintance about a relatively new program started by one of Mano a Mano’s leaders…the indomitable Maria Blanca Velasquez (Segundo’s sister) who has been nurturing her church for over 40 years. Now I say a church but it is much more than just a church….for it now houses a clinic that changes lives. It all started when an American named Steve showed up at the church looking to do missionary work. That missionary work turned into learning how to build prosthetics after learning of Blanca’s dream to help amputees who were too poor to get the help they needed. Steve got that training and now works in that church building building more dreams.

But let me get back to Martha. About a month ago she heard about this prosthetics program at the church. Today Martha, accompanied by her husband and her 13 month old child, showed up to have her two new prostheses on for the very first time. Now Martha has not walked for over 9 years so you might imagine she might be a bit anxious. But that smile of hers should have told me something amazing was about to happen. Once fitted she arose and with the help of Steve and his assistant she walked. Not perfectly, but she put one foot in foot in front of the other and she walked across the large room…had the prosthetics adjusted and walked slowly back with one assistant and a crutch.

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There was a break, a bit more adjustment, and she walked again with the help of another. We all were elated but none more than Martha. Finally after a bit more adjustment, and the installation of a strap, and the arrival of a walker, she was up again and this time she walked by herself….and after 9 years of not walking at all. We cheered her on, we, or perhaps it was just me, cried tears of joy and wonder and then Blanca circled us up and she prayed as we held hands.

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And Martha, well Martha, turned a corner in her life today with more tenacity and courage than I could ever muster. She tells me she looks forward to getting out of the house much more often. She looks forward to looking for work and I believe she’ll be an expert walker when that child of her’s walks her first step and needs a mom to keep up with her. Martha, my new Facebook friend, keep on a walking!” – Ray Wiedmeyer

Where it Starts: Mano a Mano Workshop #1 at the CEA

Editors Note: This article was written by Morgan Harden, a recent graduate of Kenyon College. She has degrees in Spanish Literature and English, with a creative writing emphasis, which she uses to write, translate, and share stories. Drawn to its story and collaborative model, she began volunteering remotely for Mano a Mano after her graduation. This work eventually led her all the way to the organization’s epicenter in Cochabamba. After her time volunteering in Bolivia, Morgan will be headed to Argentina to begin her Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Fellowship.

Morgan’s other blogposts:

  1. “This is Everything:” Medical Donations on November 17th
Morgan Harden (right) volunteering at Mano a Mano's Center for Ecological Agriculture, October 2017.

Morgan Harden (right) volunteering at Mano a Mano’s Center for Ecological Agriculture, October 2017.

Where it Starts: Mano a Mano Workshop #1 at the CEA

From the sheer number of pitchforks, you would’ve thought we were preparing for a witch hunt, not a compost pile. With a series of clanks and bangs, Maria, Mano a Mano environmental engineer, drove a wheelbarrow full of tools towards the waiting group of students. One by one, Maria pushed the tools into their open hands. The students held the instruments uncertainly in front of them, as if to ask what do we do now? In response to the silent doubt, Maria called out, “let’s get to work!” Soon, the scraping of tools and students working in Mano a Mano’s Center of Ecological Agriculture (CEA) filled the air.

This morning we hosted 27 students from the Cuenca Educativa Guardana de Oruro for a workshop at our Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA). The workshop was Environmental Issues & Principles of Agroecology, and included a theory and practical section.

In early November we hosted 27 students from the Cuenca Educativa Guardana de Oruro for a workshop at our Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA). The workshop was Environmental Issues & Principles of Agroecology, and included a theory and practical section.

The twenty-seven students and their five teachers, visiting for Mano a Mano’s “Environmental Issues and Agroecological Principles,” split into groups to gather composting materials. This workshop is the first of five Mano a Mano offers, all aimed at teaching people about ecological practices. As the groups branched off, I stayed behind with the first group to build the base with dry plant matter. We gathered dried branches and roots, placing them in a rectangular shape and stomping down to compress them. When we had the base built, I stepped back to watch, as the students put the last few branches into place.

Workshop #1

Workshop #1

“Just like a mattress, nice and flat,” one of the teachers commented, over my shoulder, pointing towards our work with pride. “Anyone want to try it out?” He asked his students. If that compost pile were a mattress, we’re talking about the kind designed exclusively for medieval torture. The mangled, dried branches boasted only thorns and a fine dust. A few of the boys feigned jumping towards the pile, while others poked their neighbors jokingly.

Though it felt like we were doing most of the hard work, (anything can feel like that under the Cochabamba sun), that isn’t the case. Millions of bacteria, microbes, and other natural agents decompose the pile; we just created the structure they need to work. Compost piles are essentially a balance of nitrogen-rich and carbon-rich materials, which allow for aerobic decomposition. Each layer of compost serves a distinct purpose. The first layer of the pile, which I worked on, is carbon-rich materials. The dried branches we used are an ideal material, since they allow air, essential to decomposition, to pass through the structure.

Stepping back up to the pile, Maria asked the group, “Does it look good to you guys?” The students surveyed their work. It was obviously a question that begged a negative answer, yet none of the students could find anything wrong with the compost pile. A silence fell over the group. In all fairness, I didn’t see anything glaringly wrong with it either. After a moment, Maria traced the edges of the pile with her hands, saying, “It’s all flat. What do you think will happen if we keep putting things on top of it?”

Again, silence. Then, one small voice emerged, “it’ll fall over?” Maria, placing one foot on the pile, nodded in response.

“Exactly, we have to build up the sides so that when we add onto it, it doesn’t fall over. It needs to have a strong base, so we can build it up,” she clarified. With Maria’s instructions in mind, we descended on the structure again, stacking material along the sides.

When the base was done, the second group returned, with a wheelbarrow full of manure. With noses held sideways, the students shoveled manure onto the pile, while Victor, Mano a Mano agronomist, wet the compost pile with the hose. Those students provided the nitrogen-rich materials, which basically kick-start the composting process, by giving essential energy to the bacteria. The water, sprinkled on top of the pile, also helps the process, since bacteria need water to perform decomposition.

Finally, the third group stepped up and set a layer of topsoil on top, to help the compost break down more rapidly. Then, we repeated the process, piling up the structure in different layers, careful to build the sides, as it climbed skyward. We finished quickly, adding little by little, until a compost pile sprang up among us. As Maria noted, working alongside the students, “we can’t change everything overnight, but we have to start somewhere.”

In actuality, we didn’t start the day with the compost pile, but with a discussion about environmental issues and agroecology. Maria led the group, explaining climate change and its contributors, such as pollution, deforestation, and water contamination. It was all valuable information; among all South American countries, Bolivia is the second most vulnerable to the side effects of climate change. Again, Maria stressed the immensity of the issue, “it’s a big problem, and we can’t fix everything, but every little bit helps.” The compost pile was just a small example of how waste can be reused. Instead of throwing away food scrapes or animal waste, we can compost them, creating a fertilizer to bring nutrients back to the soil—keeping waste from going to waste! Everything about the day revolved around sustainability, from the compost pile and small environmental projects, to the eco-friendly lunch (cooked exclusively in solar ovens) we enjoyed.

During lunch, I ended up next to one of the teachers, Professor Ciro, who told me about the journey from Cuenca Educativa Guardano of Oruro to Cochabamba. They had traveled over five hours the previous day to attend the workshop. Having made nearly the same trip days before, I couldn’t imagine the ride in a bus (with twenty-seven teenagers). Curiosity struck me, so I asked Professor Ciro what motivated them to come so far. In a quiet tone, he replied that the students needed to learn about environmental issues. “They’re the base of their communities,” he reasoned, “they could start a real change.”

Of course, not all the students will grow up to be agro-ecologists or environmental engineers. Maybe one or two will pursue a career in sustainability, but that’s not the point. Just like the compost pile, working little by little, building up a base with strong sides and the right materials is the best way to help it grow. Every student came out of the workshop with a better understanding of environmental issues and hands on experiences with sustainability projects. With any luck, those students will be agents for change in their communities. Those students will teach their classmates what they learned, spread awareness and sustainable practices. And that’s a victory. After all, every little bit helps.

“This is Everything:” Medical Donations on November 17th

“This is Everything:” Medical Donations on November 17th

Editors Note: This article was written by Morgan Harden, a recent graduate of Kenyon College. She has degrees in Spanish Literature and English, with a creative writing emphasis, which she uses to write, translate, and share stories. Drawn to its story and collaborative model, she began volunteering remotely for Mano a Mano after her graduation. This work eventually led her all the way to the organization’s epicenter in Cochabamba. After her time volunteering in Bolivia, Morgan will be headed to Argentina to begin her Fulbright English Teaching Assistant Fellowship.

Morgan Harden (right) volunteering at Mano a Mano's Center for Ecological Agriculture, October 2017.

Morgan Harden (right) volunteering at Mano a Mano’s Center for Ecological Agriculture, October 2017.

Morgan wrote about four of the recent recipients of medical supplies below:

Gabriela’s New Wheelchair

“Ciao,” Gabriela waved excitedly to me, as her dad lowered her new wheelchair towards the waiting car. This morning, eight families from around Cochabamba met at the Center for Ecological Agriculture (CEA) to collect medical donations. Gabriela and her parents was just one of the families who arrived. All piled into her father’s taxi, Gabriela and her parents traveled nearly an hour from Tiquipaya to get her first wheelchair.

Gabriela was born with meningocele, or a protrusion of membranes that cover the spine and portions of the spinal cord, due to a bone defect in the vertebrae. Because of this, Gabriela has never been able to move her feet and often suffers from weakness and fractures in her legs. Though the blockage was removed in surgery, alleviating some of her symptoms with physical therapy, Gabriela will likely never gain full function of her feet.

However, you never would’ve known it, looking at the little girl. She sat contended on her mother’s lap all morning, playing with the brightly colored purse around her neck and her favorite toy, a plastic insect. As she approaches her third birthday, Gabriela needs a wheelchair to give her more mobility to move around (and make trouble), like other kids. When she was fit with her wheelchair, the change was almost instantaneous.

As her parents bent over the donation paperwork, Gabriela sailed around the room. Though her hands barely reached the wheels, she pushed herself (with the plastic bug along for the ride) all about the room, running herself into boxes of supplies and giggling at the soft collision. Gabriela smiled up at her parents, who could only turn to Juan, the donation coordinator at Mano a Mano, saying “this is going to change her life so much. Thank you.” All of us stood for a moment, looking at Gabriela, who was still running circles around us. Needless to say, she didn’t waste any time exploring her new capacity for mobility or mischief.

Gabriela, with her parents, in her new wheelchair.

Gabriela, with her parents, in her new wheelchair.

Wheelchair Donation

“Go to Mano a Mano, my friends told me. They’ll help you get what you need,” another woman answered, when I asked her how she’d found out about Mano a Mano. The woman, who chose to remain unnamed, came to the CEA, needing a new wheelchair. At fifteen, she had a terrible accident, which damaged her spinal cord, leaving her with no mobility in her feet. She’s been in a wheelchair ever since.

Taking a break from the flurry of action, I sat down next to her for a moment to talk. When I asked her how long she’d had her previous wheelchair, she answered, “I can’t even remember, but it feels like it’s been an eternity.” And her wheelchair betrayed the wear: the seat was threatening to cave in, the footrests rusted, and the left wheel wobbling. Unwilling to let her accident limit her, she continued to go out every day to sell wares in the streets, even as her wheelchair began falling apart underneath her.

It was like a scene from Cinderella, as she tried out different wheelchairs. It took a couple of tries to find one that would support her feet and give her maximum mobility. However, once we found the right chair, if was obvious to everyone working. It was a perfect fit, if you will. Her feet slid easily into the rests, as she took a seat. She even seemed to sit up straighter.

She zipped away from us in her new chair, only to turn back and return just as quickly, with a gleaming smile. Jaime, one of Mano a Mano’s regular volunteers, turned to me and said, “looks like she’s got a new car!” Seating in the front seat of a taxi, as her husband loaded her new wheelchair into the trunk, she motioned me towards the window. Grasping my hands between hers, she whispered, “It’s perfect, just perfect. I don’t even know how to thank you.”

“It was nothing really…” I began to say, a little overwhelmed by the rush of gratitude, aimed exclusively in my direction.

She didn’t even let me finish the sentence, cutting me off with another tug of my hands, “no, really, thank you. This is everything.”

Braces for Efraín

Efraín picking up braces at Mano a Mano.

Efraín picking up braces at Mano a Mano.

Placing one of his new braces out in front of him, Efraín took a few cautious steps. Within a few seconds, he was already moving from person to person, shaking hands vigorously. He wore an infectious smile, shining to match the gleam of his braces. As Efraín sat down to the paperwork, his wife leaned towards me. “He’s not quite as young as he looks,” she confessed, with a laugh. “Trust me, it’s been a long road.”

When he was twenty-six, Efraín was caught in a transportation accident and suffered damage to his spinal cord. The accident left him completely bedridden, unable to perform even the most basic tasks. However, Efraín never gave up hope on his rehabilitation. After two years in bed, he made enough progress with physical therapy to use a wheelchair. He was in the wheelchair for years, still training with the hopes of walking again. With eight more years of work, Efraín regained enough mobility to walk with the help of braces. Although Efraín still has 48% difficulty, meaning nearly half of his body has mobility issues, he is determined to continue making gains. His new braces, which replaced a pair with nearly a decade of wear, will certainly support this continued progress.

Although it was the first time Efraín received a donation from Mano a Mano, it wasn’t his first experience with the organization. As a representative of the federation of disabled people, Efraín encounters Mano a Mano in his work regularly. To that end, he commented, “it’s so important we have Mano a Mano’s support. It makes all the difference, not just for me, but for lots of people.”

After a moment of contemplation and a renewed round of thanks, he added, “We’re trying to show our abilities, not lean on our disabilities.”

Crutches for don Guillermo

On Friday, don Guillermo was another recipient of a pair of crutches after an accident:

Photo from Nate Knatterud-Hubinger (1)

We Have Shipped 205,675 Pounds of Supplies in 2017

This year, with the help of many dedicated people, we have shipped 205,675 pounds of donated medical supplies from Minnesota to Bolivia, where we distribute them to organizations and people in need, like Gabriela, Efrain, and Guillermo.

There are always many more supplies arriving at our St. Paul, Minnesota warehouse, waiting to be shipped and given to people in need. If you would like to help us with our next shipment, CLICK HERE.

Water Filling in the Maldonado Water Reservoir

Water Filling in the Maldonado Water Reservoir

The Maldonado water reservoir, October 2017

The Maldonado water reservoir, October 2017

Water is starting to fill in Mano a Mano’s water reservoir project in Maldonado, Bolivia.

Mano a Mano staff started work on this new water project in February 2017. As with many of our projects, the working conditions are difficult: it is about 14,000 feet above sea level, and it is cold, wet, and windy.

When completed, this project will make it possible for 96 subsistence farm families (about 600 people) to irrigate 250 acres of cropland and to water their livestock, as well as having water for household use. With the severe drought currently affecting Bolivia, water projects like this one are especially important to help rural communities manage their resources.

Because of the need, water projects are a high priority for Mano a Mano and the communities that we partner with. In addition to building large-scale water reservoirs, we also build surface wells and small water ponds in communities where the smaller projects are a better fit.

Pictures from Maldonado – late October 2017

Wirkini Water Reservoir

At about this time last year, Mano a Mano was dedicating a water reservoir in Wirkini, Bolivia. The Wirkini project joins Mano a Mano’s 8 other large-scale water retention projects that benefit 131,062 people throughout Bolivia (51,062 directly). When complete, the Maldonado water project will join these other water projects. Our first water reservoir was built in Ucuchi, Bolivia in 2005 (this reservoir is the other project featured in the video) and has been consistently providing water to the community for more than a decade, even in times of drought like Bolivia is currently experiencing.