Last summer, Canadian medical school student Amy Gajaria, 27, joined a Brazilian circus. Gajaria volunteered for three weeks in Rio de Janeiro with Crescer e Viver (Grow Up and Live), a nonprofit circus school program that aims to educate and boost the self-esteem of children from low-income communities. “The kids have a chance to be physically active, express themselves creatively, and work with others,” says Gajaria. “A lot of them come from homes in favelas where they may not have great adult role models. They really look up to the circus school staff.”
Crescer e Viver is one of more than 50 programs that have partnered with the organization Iko Poran, which places international volunteers with Brazilian nonprofit groups that need an extra hand. Participants might teach English or environmental conservation, or coach soccer or gymnastics, among other possibilities. Gajaria has a background in theater and trained on the trampoline when she was younger, so she was matched with the circus school program.
“Three days a week in the afternoon, I assisted the youngest kids with acrobatic activities inside a big-top circus tent in Rio’s Praça Onze neighborhood, near the Centro (downtown),” explains Gajaria. “I helped the little ones as they did cartwheels and handstands to warm up. Then I assisted the instructors as the kids worked on the trapeze, juggled, jumped on the trampoline, rode the unicycle, or learned how to balance on each other. I was just blown away by their talents,” Gajaria says. “The part that was most meaningful to me, though, was talking one-on-one with kids who don’t get that kind of adult attention at home. I’d ask them about their lives and try to explain snow and hockey to them. There were two little girls and a boy in particular whom I really connected with. They called me titia (auntie).”
Iko Poran volunteers also take 20 hours of intensive Portuguese classes. “I would bring my Portuguese homework to the circus school to do in between activities,” says Gajaria. “The kids wanted to do it with me. They thought it was hilarious.”
Volunteers stay at the Casa Amarelinha guesthouse in Rio’s artsy Santa Teresa neighborhood, a good base for exploring the city’s famous Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, Tijuca rain forest, and samba clubs. “Rio is an incredible city. You could just go there on vacation and have a good time. But I got to feel like I had a purpose for being there,” says Gajaria. “I also got to know a community and become friends with Brazilians who weren’t involved in the tourism industry. And I got to hang out with amazing kids. It was just so much fun.” A
Iko Poran, 55/(0) 21-3852-2916. From $1,245 for a three-week program, including lodging. Photo by Odile Meylan. This appeared in the March/April 2011 issue.