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Mission for kids

Key Club International and UNICEF team up to protect the children and adolescents of Uruguay


By Amberly Peterson. Photos by Bobby Ellis.


Key Club International has committed to raising US$1.5 million for Operation Uruguay.From June 6-11, Key Club International’s four ambassadors to UNICEF traveled to Uruguay to experience firsthand the lifestyles of children and teens there. Newly-elected Key Club International board members Jared Doles, Abigail McKameyAnna Nguyen and Lance Wilson accompanied Mike Downs, Key Club International director, and Kristi Burnham, from the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, to the South American country.


They learned more about Operation Uruguay: Protecting the Rights of Children and how Key Club members can make a difference. Each ambassador kept a journal of his or her trip and they share their journey here.


You and your Key Club can help too, when you Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF this Halloween. Donations will support the Mandalavos Center and others like it to ensure the rights of youth to education, health and basic services and family support.


Saturday, June 6

“My alarm went off at 10 till 5 a.m. I got ready and went downstairs to meet my parents. We got in the car and got the yummiest blueberry cake donuts and went to the airport in Nashville. It’s sad, but when I said goodbye, my mom cried—but honestly I’ve never been really nervous about the trip (like she has!).”Operation Uruguay: Protecting the Rights of Children

“My first flight had a smooth landing in Chicago. I stopped for a pizza then hopped back on a plane toward Miami. After waiting for all the others, we boarded the 777 American Airlines jet and that was it, we were off! Everything had gone relatively smoothly. We had a few delays and goodbyes were bittersweet, but at the end of the night, I was completely excited about the journey ahead. I had no clue what to expect, who I would meet or what I would learn from all the overall experience. It didn’t matter. Aboard flight 943, I knew I was taken care of and that was it.”
—Abigail McKamey

“Today I had to take the SAT, then go to work before I went to the airport. When I got to the airport, I was told my flight was delayed. I’m barely supposed to make the flight to Buenos Aires, which would then take us to Montevideo.

“The flight is eight hours long, but thankfully, I have my iPod and one of the other ambassadors sitting near me to talk to. We’re all excited to meet some Uruguayan teens and hopefully, help them with their care centers.

“Lance and I get angry looks from the other passengers because it’s midnight and we don’t stop laughing and cutting up. Eventually, we stop and watch Confessions of a Shopaholic.”
Anna Nguyen

Sunday, June 7

“The flight to Montevideo was a short 25 minutes and once we arrived we set off for the hotel. The scenery was lovely and the civilians were very family-oriented. Many people spent the day walking the beach or participating in soccer games. We also received a tour of Montevideo including a panoramic view of the city from its highest point.”
—Lance Wilson

“The airport lost Anna’s luggage. I felt really bad, but hoped Abigail could lend her some stuff for a couple of days. Met Egidio, head of the UNICEF Uruguay office, and Maria. Apparently they kiss to greet a person in Uruguay. Weird, but whatev…”
—Jared Doles

Key Club ambassadors got briefed on Operation Uruguay.Monday, June 8

“Our first stop today is the UNICEF office in Montevideo. We meet many UNICEF team members who happily greet us. We get a quick tour of the UNICEF Uruguay office. It is small and quaint. We get briefed on how UNICEF is working with the government to support programs like PLAN CEIBAL, where every primary school student in Uruguay is given a laptop so they may improve Web activity and access, and the Community Teachers Programme, where teachers work with students who face repeating the first years in school, at home or school. The Uruguay Fund for UNICEF is also working to decrease violence. Something that strikes me: Egidio said, ‘How can we promote a peaceful society without promoting peaceful dialogue?’”
—Anna Nguyen

Key Club members and teens at the Mandalavos Center built friendships over a game of ping-pong.“Arrived at Mandalavos Center. Did I mention they kiss on the cheek to greet someone? A bunch of the kids were waiting to greet us along with Fernando, the adult in charge. They all seemed so excited to meet us. We actually met the kids from the interviews! One of the guys grabbed me and we went over and played ping-pong. We hung out, talking with the kids and playing games. They got an interpreter for us named Macarena, but we ended playing charades pretty often to try and talk.”
—Jared Doles

“We returned and had a nice snack before sitting back and watching the cinemas which were prepared by Mandalavos. Thankfully, they had subscript in English since we couldn’t understand Spanish. We went to a retreat house after that, called Emaus. Here we ate a wonderful dinner of steaks, sausages and a variety of meats. We sat around the fire and played games and colored drawings and bonded with many kids before returning to the sleeping quarters only to have a pillow fight with the rest of the boys before eventually turning in.”
—Lance Wilson

Tuesday, June 9

“We learn how one school is working to help children with mental challenges integrate the system. We are also provided with numbers of students who dropped out, the school schedule for students, etc. It’s really interesting to see how the Uruguayan community is so involved with getting kids back in school. They tell us that they do it because they love doing what they do. They name the Community Teachers Programme. Then they also tell us that they can definitely see how well Mandalavos is affecting some of their students.”
—Anna Nguyen

At the trip’s end the Uruguayans honored their new friends with this gourd.“As a special surprise they presented us with a dried gourd that had all their names carved into it. In Uruguayan culture, they used to break them and two people would each take a piece, so that when they kept it they would remember there was someone out there you were connected with. They made one for us and one for themselves so we would remember them, like we could forget.”

“When we finally went to leave the entire group followed us out to the van. As it pulled away, the whole crowd of them chased us down the sidewalk yelling and waving. I will never forget that.”
—Jared Doles

Wednesday, June 10

“We then went to the Defensa de los Ninos Internacional (DNI) office. The briefing included the actions taken when a juvenile committed a crime and the assisted programs they could be involved in. We then went to a small community-based center that promoted child rights and ate a nice meal of sandwiches and desserts. We received a small tour and visited some other schools for preschoolers and elementary school children.”
—Lance Wilson
Primary students use laptops that play games, show videos, play music and more.“Next we go to visit the oldest school in Montevideo. The principal tells us that it has been around for a hundred years. He takes us back past the cafeteria to his little technological room. Here we see the laptops given to the primary school students by the government. These computers are actually really neat! They can play games, write, research, film videos, play music, etc. I’m very impressed with how much money and commitment the government is putting toward education for children. I’m blown away when the students say if a computer crashes, they bring it to the tech room and kids who are maybe 11 or 12 years old fix the computers themselves. Kids over here definitely have a bigger appreciation for their possessions here.”
—Anna Nguyen

“One of my favorite visits was to a state-funded preschool. We got a chance to play with the three-year-olds. As I was running around chasing a group of boys, growling and tickling, I felt a small tug and my blue jeans. It was a tiny, olive-skinned beauty with a shy smile on her face. 

“Her hair was curly and pulled back in a ponytail. I held out my arms and she hesitantly came to me. As I held her, we just looked at each other. Smiles came when the tickling started and they didn’t stop until it was time to go. I will never forget her sweet face—and I hope that happiness we found during those short moments will be relived throughout her life.”
—Abigail McKamey

The bears in Montevideo’s town square represent the United Nations member countries.Thursday, June 11

“We saw the circle of bears in the town square representing the countries involved in the United Nations—major cool! Then we stopped for photos at the theatre and House of Parliament. The architecture in the city was gorgeous!

“Before lunch, we stopped for a few minutes of shopping—emphasis on the “few.” Still I managed to do some damage. My favorite thing was a handmade necklace from a small Uruguayan craft shop. As we entered the restaurant, we hurried to meet our much-missed friends. We were greeted by hugs and kisses slowly making our way to the long, family-style table for lunch.

“The teens had spent many hours making us farewell gifts—handmade cards, wood burned signs and letters depicting their feelings for us as their new international family. Lunch was tasty but watching them indulge in the unknown frivolities of a restaurant was even more fun. I looked over at Lance several times and we both were trying to hold back the tears. We were going to miss them immensely. If they only knew how much they had given to us through their simple acts of kindness.”
—Abigail McKamey

“We walked across the city along the road and down the pier to a lighthouse. Once we reached the lighthouse Fernando explained that Montevideo along with Argentina used to control the coast during Spanish colonization. He also explained why he liked to bring the kids here. He said, “They focus so much on getting to the end, and once they do, they realize that the journey was the most important part.” He meant it as a metaphor for life. The beautiful waves and the view of the city coastline made it clear as we walked back.”
—Jared Doles

Read the entire journals

Abigail McKamey
Anna Nguyen
Jared Doles
Lance Wilson

Watch a video of the Uruguay trip

You can help!

This fall, join the cause by participating in Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF, which will benefit Operation Uruguay: Protecting the Rights of Children. Together, Key Club and UNICEF can make a difference.

Find out more about Operation Uruguay