LADLE’s Ruta Esperanza Inspires Native Mexican & Mayan Children in Tulum to Dream

by Editor

By Beth Rush

You never know what experiences may change your life. Although I began my work as a digital nomad in Tulum, Mexico, my experiences with youth volunteering there restored my faith in active citizenship and the ability of a group of concerned individuals to make a difference.

When I embarked on my journey, I didn’t even know what an NGO was. However, I learned what they are and what they do while rediscovering the sense of community I desperately missed and that seemingly no longer existed in my previous corner of the globe.

There’s plenty of room for such enterprises everywhere and I hope to see similar organizations arise worldwide. The human spirit desperately needs them and connection with one another. Rates of mental health disorders spiked during and after the pandemic, in large part because young people feel little hope in a world that seems more married to profit and war than community and family.

Organizations such as LADLE offer a chance to dream. By providing community, valuable coping skills and educational resources, these groups can pave the way to a brighter future for humanity. Here’s how this NGO’s Ruta Esperanza, or ‘Hope Route,’ inspires native Mexican and Mayan children in Tulum, and serves as a model for other similar organizations.

Stumbling Upon This Youth Volunteering Opportunity as a Digital Nomad

I arrived in Tulum with mingled emotions of hope, battling a nearly overwhelming sense of resignation. Housing costs stateside had left me with two choices — share my pad with multiple strangers, or try to squeeze a mattress and composting toilet into my Jeep in hopes of avoiding the dreaded knock.

Being young and healthy, I chose to see what was behind door number three — escaping to a lower cost-of-living area while enjoying an adventure before age made travel more of a chore than a pleasure. My life became a flurry of applying for various visas, paying the applicable fees, finding lodging, and using my EWA app in a desperate attempt to hone my Spanish before departure.

Upon arriving, I spent many afternoons simply walking, exploring the area and greeting the locals. One thing that struck me was a gorgeous wall of murals including words like libertad or ‘freedom.’ I had to learn about the artists, which led to my discovery of Los Amigos de la Esquina.

Los Amigos de la Esquina (LADLE) is an NGO, which stands for non-governmental organization. Although these are often nonprofit organizations for tax purposes in the United States, they exist all over the world and don’t necessarily follow a corporate structure. Many form when concerned citizens come together and file the requisite paperwork without necessarily claiming a tax advantage.

Jaime Kohen and Francisco Rocha donated the plot of land that became known as the “Friends on the Corner.” In 2021, the founders built a school with donations from local businesses and even international donors. Their mission was to improve the lives of area children by encouraging youth volunteering, active citizenship, inclusion, sociocultural exchange, consciousness-raising and cognitive and socio-emotional development.

Expanding Tulum’s Model of Active Citizenship

As I learned more about LADLE, I knew this was my chance to contribute to the community that welcomed me so warmly as an expat. It helps children with integral development through programs designed to engage all four aspects of self, including:

  • Physical
  • Emotional
  • Mental
  • Spiritual

For example, LADLE combines unstructured time for free play that engages kids’ creativity and imagination with guided programs that develop them physically and mentally. Each child may participate in up to five or six activities daily free of charge, plus daily yoga classes that include their families.

That’s where I found my volunteering niche. As a part-time yoga guide, I found it easy to modify my typical hatha routines to meet the needs of students of various ages. Doing so even eased the remaining language barrier, as the slower, relaxed atmosphere of the classroom encouraged clearer communication — mixed with a few laughs at my gaffes.

For two years, I would walk past a beautifully painted wall of murals on my way to volunteer at LADLE, three times a week. Other volunteers told me the messages on the wall were purposeful. They were created with the children in mind; the muralists wanted to instill feelings of optimism in these little viewers as they walked by the artwork and read the messages.

One word stuck out to me: Libres. After so many months of passing the murals every week, I couldn’t help but think of my role in these children’s futures. I couldn’t help but think of my liberation, of Tulum’s liberation, of the expansion of active citizenship and environmental consciousness on a global scale.

Teaching Skills for a Sustainable Future

The skills LADLE teaches empower students for life. It also helps ensure they have a habitable planet. For example, they emphasize environmental consciousness, including a community garden complete with composting and regular nature outings. Learning skills such as companion planting help enhance nutrients and protect soil health while repelling pests without harmful insecticides or fertilizers.

Additionally, LADLE inspires students to dream by showing how these skills apply to the world. They offer classes in English and entrepreneurship, encouraging youth to pursue their business endeavours. It also engages their creative side with courses in art and ceramics and teaches them valuable self-soothing techniques such as meditation.

Inspiring Active Citizenship Through Youth Volunteering

Although I’ve since returned stateside, I’ll never forget the two years I spent in Tulum working with LADLE as a digital nomad and part-time volunteer yoga guide. Their model won’t only work in their corner of the world — these lessons are applicable anywhere.

They’re also what the world needs. In an era when human connection has led to mental health crises, engaging youth and giving them hope through similar NGOs can help them gain a sense of purpose.

All images courtesy Los Amigos De La Esquina

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