Photo courtesy of Autumn Chandler

A picture of Autumn Chandler (2021-2022 SALT participant) and her host family (from left to right: Sarah Ortiz, Sarah Aguanta, Autumn and Yenny Aguanta Ortiz). 

This story is written by Autumn Chandler, reflecting on her time with MCC’s Serving and Learning Together (SALT) program as her year-long service term in Santa Cruz, Bolivia comes to an end. Autumn is from West Lawn, Pennsylvania, and she served as an Educational and Childcare Assistant at Stansberry Hogar de Niños (children’s shelter).  

I have a lot to think about as my year-long SALT term comes to an end. Everything has changed since I left the United States. I’ve now lived in Santa Cruz, Bolivia for almost the entirety of a year and I feel completely comfortable here. I didn’t know that much Spanish when I first arrived in Bolivia, but now I would be comfortable giving a speech in Spanish. I love my host family and they treat me like a real member of the family, just as I regard them as my family. I have my own routine and fun little activities that I do with the kids I work with every day. 

I have a life here. It’s not the life I had living in the United States, but it’s a new one that I created and am happy with. Some days I still feel like I don’t belong, but “poco a poco” (little by little) I’ve adapted to my new life. I’ve accepted that this life I have is ever-changing and I’ll feel different every day. But the hardest part to accept is the changes I’ve noticed in myself. 

Autumn Chandler (right), is pictured with her host mom, Sarah Ortiz (left). Photo courtesy of Autumn Chandler 

Before I came to Bolivia, I was Autumn Chandler, freshly graduated from high school and wanting to take on the world. I decided to take a year off before I went to college to explore what’s out there. I had dreams of living in other countries, experiencing other cultures, eating different food, and learning other languages. MCC’s SALT program offered me a chance to fulfil my dreams. But more importantly it offered me the chance to serve. My SALT assignment would be working in a home called Stansberry Hogar de Niños where I would generally supervise the kids while also helping with homework and of course, playing with them, which fit perfectly with my dream of teaching elementary kids.

So, it was decided. I got on a plane by myself for the very first time and flew 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) away from my home and my life. I still felt like a little kid on the inside, but I knew this journey mattered more to me than my fear of doing it alone.

As I was leaving home, I was already thinking about the day I would return. I thought to myself: ‘it would just be like riding a bike.’ Even though I would be speaking a different language, working a different job, and living with a different family, it would be easy to come back home, easy to return to the life I had. But as I get closer to that day, I realize that it will not be like riding a bike. It will be more like seeing an old friend after a long time--a little awkwardness, a lot of memories and realizing how much has changed between the two of you.  

Autumn is pictured with Sarah Aguanta (top left), Yenny Aguanta Ortiz (top right), Naomi Scetti (bottom left) and Sarita Scetti (bottom right).Photo courtesy of Autumn Chandler 

In Bolivia, my name is not Autumn, but Otoño (“fall” in Spanish). My host family has even added an endearing suffix so that it is now Otoñito (-ito means “little”). Not only have I simply changed as a person, but I have also changed into a different person entirely, with a different name. But I’m happy with that. I love finding little pieces of Autumn and recognizing new changes in Otoño. 

 Autumn came to a new country by herself, but Otoño survived here without any prior experience. I think what Otoño did is much harder. Otoño is tough. She learned how to be alone without becoming completely isolated, speaks a whole different language, explores new things without batting an eye and jumps into them without hesitation. She is brave. She knows whatever it is, she can handle it. She is trusting, but also depends on herself a lot. She showed resilience when she had to face difficult and unexpected challenges. Otoño became way stronger than Autumn ever was. And for all these changes, I’m proud of her.  

As much as I love getting to know Otoño and all her similarities and differences to Autumn, I can’t wait to return to Autumn and the life that she had. But I also know that Otoño will always be in there somewhere, influencing Autumn with all she learned in this year. It’s strange getting to know this new part of me, but I’m learning to love her for her differences. And I can appreciate all those differences more now than ever, because I’m not sure I’ll get to fully be Otoño again after I leave Bolivia.  

 

Autumn (middle) celebrates Christmas with Sarah Ortiz (right) and Inocencia Ortiz (left).Photo courtesy of Autumn Chandler 

I have learned so much in these past nine months, and there will be more lessons I’ll realize I learned after I leave. But so far, the most important thing I’ve learned is that even though change is hard and scary, it’s still beautiful. During my SALT term, I have had so many moments of doubt and fear, but I’ve had more moments of hope and community and love. Whether you’ve moved to a new place or changed into a different person, you will always be able to find beautiful moments in times of changes and transitions, just like the beauty in each changing season. 


Serving and Learning Together (SALT) is a unique year-long cross-cultural immersion experience for Christian young adults from the U.S. and Canada, ages 18-30, sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). 

We are currently accepting applications for any young adults interested in being immersed in another culture, living with host families or communal settings such as dormitories or teacher housing in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin and Central America and the Middle East. 

For more information, visit mcc.org/SALT or contact Jenna Villatoro at jennavillatoro@mcc.org