El Alto, Bolivia

Service work inspires law career

When Elysha Roeper decided to participate in MCC’s Seed program, she didn’t think her placement would inspire a career change.

Roeper, 24, from Belleville, Ontario, had just graduated from Queens University with a bachelor’s degree in development and human geography. She didn’t have any work experience in the field and knew she’d probably need to learn a second language to get a job, so Roeper decided to apply to Seed.

MCC’s two-year-long program brings together a cohort of young adults ages 20 to 30 from around the world – either serving in Southern Africa, Africa’s Great Lakes region, Colombia, Central America or Bolivia – to live in a local community. They serve with MCC partners or churches that work from the grassroots to address issues such as violence, oppression, food insecurity, access to education, climate change and environmental destruction.

Roeper works with Albertina Mamani Gutierrez, a Fundación Communidad y Axión project participant, in her greenhouse.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Roeper’s placement is with Fundación Communidad y Axión (FCA/Community and Action Foundation), an MCC partner that works to improve access to nutritious food in El Alto, Bolivia, by helping low-income families build greenhouses or huertas on their property. She works as a community service worker.

El Alto has an arid climate and harsh sunlight, which makes growing vegetables difficult. The greenhouses make it possible for families to eat healthy, organic foods without having to travel far on public transportation to buy vegetables that have been sprayed with chemicals.

Roeper walks through an area of El Alto, Bolivia, with her friend and colleague, Victoria Mamani Sirpa, an agricultural technician and teacher.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

When Roeper arrived in Bolivia, she pictured herself working in development long term, but those plans have changed.

“Even though I came into the program trying to leave my conceptions behind, I had a lot of ideas about what development looked like and the change one person could make,” she explains.

Those ideas were challenged over the last two years.

“I haven’t been disappointed by my placement at all. The people and project are amazing, but I had this huge realization that there are things that are out of my control,” she says.

Namely, climate change.

El Alto is arid and drought prone, which makes growing healthy food difficult.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Shortly after she arrived, Roeper began contemplating a career in environmental law.

Last year, El Alto faced its worst drought in 25 years. The city had no rain at all and to top it off, the glaciers surrounding El Alto, which supply the city and the area with water are shrinking rapidly.  The water reservoir plummeted to two percent capacity.

Roeper recalls the government shutting off taps to conserve water and families connected to FCA waiting for hours to pick up water from trucks stationed around the city.

“The huertas (orchards) are beautiful and the families are thriving, but they can’t function without water,” she says.

Roeper also felt convicted to pursue higher education because many women in Bolivia don’t have that opportunity. Instead they accept the societal pressures to become wives and stay-at-home mothers.

“Some of the women I met here said, ‘My dad said school was for boys only,’ so they never got to go. Half of the women we work with have never finished primary school,” she says.

A project participant inspects the tomatoes she grew in her greenhouse.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Roeper is attending the University of Windsor’s law school in the fall and hopes to use her knowledge and experience in Bolivia to help affect change.

“Climate change is becoming life or death,” she says. “I’ve had this experience, and I’ll never be able to just skip all my classes and watch Netflix. If I do this well and I accomplish what I want to achieve, I can hopefully affect someone’s life.”