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Skip Navigation LinksDiscover > Magazine > September 2009 > Mission for kids > Abigail McKamey's journal

Journal of my time in Uruguay, June 2009

By Abigail McKamey
Key Club International president
and ambassador to UNICEF


Abigail McKameyQuestions

What are you most looking forward to during your trip to Uruguay?
I am looking forward to the difference in culture. I have never been to another country before so I’ve been excited since I first heard we were going. 

I am also looking forward to being completely open with myself to these people. I am blessed and I want to work with these teens in a way that helps them feel important and helps me see things from their perspective, to understand their despair and poverty.

Why did you decide to go on this trip?
How could I say no? I mean what an opportunity! In all seriousness, I wanted to go because I knew that I would have something to give, and because it would provide a chance for me to learn more about the world around me. 

I wanted to take this trip to see what it is like in a completely different world and new people and see new things.

Finally, I felt this trip would be a chance to rejuvenate my passion for service and give me a sense of purpose for all the long hours I gladly give to Key Club. And it’s nice to have a break.

What do you hope to learn or gain from your trip to Uruguay?
I hope this experience will give me the chance to view things from a completely different perspective. It is so easy to get in a mindset of a common lifestyle with so many blessings.

Regardless, I am open and want to give myself completely to the experience. I am stoked!!!

What do you expect to accomplish on your trip to Uruguay?
I have been looking forward to this field visit for so long. With this trip, I plan to really spark a burning passion for the project as a whole, and I feel that by sharing the memories made during our time in Uruguay, I can excite people about service through Operation Uruguay.

How is daily life in Uruguay different from your life?
This mindset is different. These kids have no one who gives a care about when they’re home or who’s giving them their next meal. We have parents and guardians who sacrifice so much of themselves, so we can be the best we can be.

In Uruguay, children are neither seen nor heard. The U.S. gives children the freedom to grow and prosper. In Uruguay, the children don’t even have the privilege to be acknowledged as the future of the nation.

What is most surprising to you about the children in Uruguay?
I didn’t expect the teens of Mandalavos to have such a close bond with each other. I wasn’t able to understand one word they said but you could plainly see the sincerity among them. Their closeness was one of the things that touched me the most.

How did your experience in Uruguay differ from your idea of how it would be?
I didn’t come close to imagining how attached I would become to the teens and sponsors of the Mandalavos Center. When the time came to say goodbye, they worked so hard to let us know they truly appreciated what Key Club and UNICEF were doing for them. It made me feel completely worthwhile.

Who have you most enjoyed meeting on this trip? Why?
Apart from my new friends at the Mandalavos Center, I was thrilled to meet the workers at UNICEF in Uruguay. They not only gave themselves to our agenda, but they showed us that any citizen of humanity can serve the community in any capacity. They are heroic in my eyes and I will miss them very much.

Which memory from Uruguay sticks out in your mind most? Why?
On the last day, the teens met us at a nicer restaurant in Montevideo to wish us farewell. The teens gave us some treasures they had worked so hard on. The crafts filled me with such appreciation for the work we are doing. It was the perfect way to end the trip!

What would you tell your friends at home about your experience?
It changed my life. I came back enthused and overjoyed to be working with Key Club International and UNICEF. By showing pictures and little treasures I gained from the trip, I would hope to share the message that this project is worth every penny. We are giving the teens of Uruguay a chance. Our efforts are the first glimpse of hope many of them have ever seen. Don’t stop now. We must keep going and bring life to the country of Uruguay as we begin to sustain the children of tomorrow.

Do you think your trip to Uruguay has changed your perspective on life? Why or why not?
Most definitely, I have never wanted to give so much before. Seeing the faces of my peers in Mandalavos light up so brightly has made me determined to give all that I can. I really don’t want to stop! If I can use all my talents to better at least one person’s life, I will feel accomplished. But, if I work hard with Operation Uruguay, I am helping numerous people who will one day change the lives of a country.

What messages about this trip will you bring back to your Key Club, your community and your friends?
To my Key Club—I hope to tell the stories and really encourage our efforts in UNICEF to be doubled. I think if I can accurately convey my experience to them, we will all work even harder when Halloween comes to town!

To my community—I want to go publicity crazy! I think the more they know the better. If that means we need to put story after story in local newspapers, so be it! I hope to spread the message so we can have a community effort to raise money for Operation Uruguay.

To my friends—I would love to show my friends that we really have it good. We worry over such petty things that others in the world only dream of having. I want to be an example that puts the focus on the world around them—not just one person or themselves in the world.

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!). 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.

 I was headed to a new horizon that was fresh and unexplored. I was also honored to simply be there. So many out there could have done such great things on this trip and knowing that made me want to try and represent Key Club the best way I knew how. 

Sitting on the plane, waiting to take off, I didn’t know what would happen, but nothing was about to ground my excitement and inspiration to reach out to the children of Montevideo. Closing out the day, I watched Confessions of a Shopaholic, talked to Jared and Papa Mike and peacefully went to sleep, as peacefully as you can on an overnight flight.

Sunday, June 7

Sunday started at midnight on a plane headed due south to Buenos Aires. After takeoff, I talked and joked around with Mike Downs (better known as Papa Downs or Daddy) and Jared who was sitting across the aisle. After the movie and a tasty micro-waved meal, I fell asleep. Jared said I slept with my mouth open. Regardless of the truth, I was just glad to have gotten six hours of rest.

I woke up to the smell of bagels and Jared staring at me. We soon landed and then came our first funny—swine flu had hit Argentina. No one was allowed to leave the plane without a mask. Yuck! Morning breath and a cumbersome mask do not mix!

Once we got to our next gate, Anna and I teamed up—just like girls do—and went to the bathroom. The entire time the lovely Kristi Burnham, or Mommy, urged us to be smart and not drink the water. Afterwards, I began the journey of money and finances in a foreign country. I bought a $5 candy bar and a calling card sold by a woman who was perturbed by my lack of competence in Spanish. The final flight lasted a very short time and then we were there!

Customs went smoothly. We were greeted by a kiss by the UNICEF staff, which made me feel at home.

While driving to our hotel, I could not contain myself. Uruguay was amazing! We ate lunch at Old Maz next to our hotel and I had my first calzone—cheese, cheese, tomato, cheese, cheese, bacon, onions and some more cheese!  It was soo delicious!

The tour afterwards was great and relaxing. We napped then ate dinner. I split ravioli and had espresso and apple pie. Have I mentioned that Uruguayans know how to cook?! We went to a nearby supermarket, each purchasing a five-gallon container of water (mommy Kristi insisted!). Last on the agenda was sleep. Please take my word for it. Sleep had never been so good!

Monday, June 8

We woke up Monday morning, feeling somewhat refreshed. Breakfast was good and the coffee was even better. Once we were off to the UNICEF office, nerves really started to set in. I had no clue what the day had in store. I just knew it was going to be busy from the start. After a debriefing at the offices we headed to the Mandalavos Center to meet the teens and adult sponsors. All of us sat in the van very excited. I was anxious as heck!

When we got there, we saw a colorful building with many children peeking outside the glass. The four of us clung to each other right then. We went in the main meeting room and were immediately a part of a big family circle. Everyone was staring at us. We were greeted by so many kisses and hugs. I think we were all a little overwhelmed. After the director, Fernando, gave us the official welcome, the first question asked was whether or not we were all single. We nodded our heads reluctantly. After a few laughs, we were off. We immediately threw ourselves into games and activities. Before we knew it, it was lunch time—beef and rice—surprisingly, amazingly delectable! 

As we were eating in the canteen, we began to take photos. Believe it or not, we had just started the favorite event of our visit. The Uruguayan teens loved taking pictures!  After several sessions of photography and ping pong, we all loaded up in vans and ventured to nearby schools. As we pulled up, it was obvious that many of the children had never seen Americans before. The four of us were gawked at wherever we went.

The schools were filled with so many students that were forming the same kind of cliques we find in our own high schools. We traveled around to different classrooms. They were not of the same caliber as ours but you could tell the teachers tried to make the learning atmosphere as healthy as possible.

We traveled to elementary schools and health centers, ending up at the Mandalavos Center for a snack and a much-anticipated movie night. The teen groups around the city had taken time to make videos expressing what their life was all about. They were very neat. The best part was the Google-translated subtitles. Lance and I began having fun with our inability to be understood—I urged him to say, “I will pick your nose!” He did.

After the movies we went to the retreat house in the middle of nowhere. It was cold and I was tired, but the food was awesome!  Three different types of meats! After our late 10:30 p.m. dinner, we played some games and gave each other back rubs—very much appreciated. After a fun time of singing songs, swing and line dancing, and a hilarious game of ter-a-dack-tle (as the Spanish would say it), we went to bed. The rooms had one fire to keep us warm. It was a good day, but the cold was bitter and unappreciated.

Tuesday, June 9

Tuesday was much more relaxing. We woke up cold, had some breakfast and separated from the group while we went to hear some specifics about the proposal for Operation Uruguay. 

While the sessions were very informative, many of us just thought about wanting to go back to the Mandalavos Center. We had only known them for a day and already our hearts were connected. I missed them! We went back for lunch—half a chicken (literally) and rice—then played for a couple of hours savoring our last moments while we could! Once the camera crew finished filming interviews and taking photos, we all gathered in the meeting room for some final presentations.

It wasn’t long after Fernando began to express his appreciation for us that I began to sob profusely. I was moved by the impact they had on me. I was absolutely boggled by the efforts and success that was taking place. The adults suddenly meant more to me because of their selfless sacrifice to give those kids the best chance of a productive life that was possible.

When it came to our turn to say our final thoughts, I did my best to make it through the tears.  Closing out was the sweetest presentation of gratitude.

Each of us made a special friend while we were there. Mine was Matias. The group had gone out and taken pictures of their favorite places in the city and compiled a book for us to look at later on. Each of our special friends was to present the book to one us. When came my turn, I looked and Matias was slowly walking toward me with tears streaming down his face.

We stood there in the middle of the room holding each other. It was absolutely precious. As we walked out they followed us blowing kisses wishing us farewell. The four of us held close, stunned with the overflowing kindness. The rest of the evening was relaxing. A couple of presentations, then dinner. Anna and I enjoyed dressing up and “looking like girls for the first time in four days.” The trip was playing out beautifully. By this point, I didn’t want to leave.

Wednesday, June 10

We woke up later that morning, having interviews for the promo videos and then off to visit various places that added to our proposal. The first was a briefing over Juvenil Justice. It was eye-opening to hear the stories of juveniles in Uruguay. Prostitution was rampant. Boys and burglary went hand in hand. I am so glad we got the opportunity to listen to the efforts being set forth to give equality to the children of Uruguay.

I think in Uruguay, children are not lifted up as we are accustomed to. I can hardly fathom that. The portion of our work that goes to fighting injustice in the juvenile courts will hopefully spark leaps and bounds of improvement. Hopefully it will lay the stepping stones to a healthier system of due process for the adolescents.

Afterwards, we went to other neighborhood groups working for the betterment of the youth. 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.

As we headed back to the hotel to prepare for dinner, we took a ride through the slums of Montevideo. Imagine turning on the TV, looking at a tornado or hurricane wreckage site. It was worse. I have never seen such filth and awful living conditions. Modesty was acute and sanitation was nowhere to be found. The homes were mere sheets of metal piled together. As we drove by, people turned their heads in shame. It was unbelievable—I will never forget the looks of it.

Our last meal in Uruguay was with the UNICEF staff. Gluttony would be a great way to describe it. I have never had so much food! It was a traditional Uruguayan BBQ. I sat by the director of UNICEF and had a very pleasant time, conversing about my experience in Uruguay. We ended with brownies and ice cream, then headed back to the hotel to pack up the memories made and prepare to head home the next day.

Thursday June, 11

The last day came too soon. I packed my things and headed to the lobby.  I freaked when I thought I lost my Blackberry, but found it shortly before departure. It was a relaxing. We toured the city until lunch. 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.

We spent our last hours walking around the city with the teens. The best part was walking down the pier on the coast of the Atlantic. Our parting thoughts were, “It’s not always about the destination—it’s the walk that takes you there.” It was true. Our journey together was what built up to the passion I feel today. The memories we share and the times we spent together are the building blocks to a successful project. I boarded the plane that night feeling accomplished. Anna and I had made plans to return one day to Montevideo. You have no idea how much I hope that dream comes true.