AN INTERVIEW WITH TIA’S FOUNDER

AN INTERVIEW WITH TIA’S FOUNDER

Tessa was just 20 years old when she spent four months volunteering in Bolivia, South America. Back then, in 2008, Tessa appeared to be just any other student, studying Social Work and International Relations, with an associate degree in Languages and Culture Studies (majoring in Spanish) at the University of South Australia. She worked in the Adelaide Central Market at an organic fruit and vegetable stall; in her spare time she did salsa dancing, went out with friends, and spent time with her pets.

“I wasn’t totally satisfied and didn’t feel happy living a life that wasn’t more fulfilling, where I could actually contribute in a more meaningful way,” she says.

Tessa always had a passion for equality and human rights issues from a young age. It all started when she was in her final years of high school, around the age of 16, when she wrote an essay for English about Female Genital Mutilation in Africa. “As I was researching this horrific practice, I started to realise how sheltered my life had been. I had never given much thought to the fact that due to merely being born in a country like Australia, I was already much better off than millions of other young people all over the world.”

After high school, she spent her gap year volunteering in developing countries and travelling through Europe, experiencing everything the world had to offer first-hand. This eventually lead her to Bolivia and ultimately resulted in the creation of her brain-child, TIA (“Aunty” in Spanish), a non-profit organisation determined to change the lives of young people living in Bolivian state care. At only 21, Tessa was already on a mission to change the world, but what sparked the desire to start her on own initiative?

“There were many pivotal moments in my life leading up to the point where I decided to create TIA,” she says. While volunteering in Bolivia, she realised the lack of opportunities children living in state care had. The youngest children in the orphanage she was volunteering in didn’t even have nappies, forcing them to use towels and spare cloth instead. “I saw that the 2 and 3 year-old children were not yet speaking, because they had no one to stimulate them or provide the necessary support to encourage their development,” she says. “They were all so behind in so many things. I started imagining how that would affect them in the years to come. Through no fault of their own, they were going to constantly suffer and find things so much harder than children who had the privilege of growing up in stable family homes.”

Creating her own international aid organisation fresh out of University was never going to be easy, and Tessa didn’t shy away from the challenges she had to face along the way. Funding has been an ongoing struggle for Tessa—having to convince people that TIA’s work is worthy of their support. “It can get very tiring, especially getting told ‘no’ constantly, and having to continue pushing on regardless,” she says. “I have reached points where I have considered giving TIA up and just doing something ‘normal’ with my life, where I could earn decent money and not have a never ending ‘to-do’ list.”

Despite the many challenges, Tessa has persevered, and has now made the big move to live in Bolivia. There’s no doubt she misses her old life back in Adelaide. Her dog, her family and friends—even the simple things like the rubbish collection system—top the list of what she misses most. She comes back often to see family and friends, with her most recent trip being spent doing yoga, going to the beach with her dog, and visiting the Adelaide Fringe. Despite her homesickness, Tessa says that the positives definitely outweigh the negatives. “I see the impact we have on the young people we work with—all of that disappears and I know that it’s just momentary and that I couldn’t give up doing something that I know is making such a real positive difference in their lives.”

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Tessa has made a significant impact to the Bolivian community since TIA’s creation, repairing a broken water system, and creating a music and computer program for vision impaired children. For the past 3 years, TIA’s focus has been on their “ValenTIA Transition” project, which focuses on helping state care leavers find their feet. Unfortunately, Bolivian children are forced to leave the orphanages they’ve been completely dependent on when they turn 18, with little life skills or tools to lead a successful life. Many of these young people often end up back in poverty or other disadvantaged situations. In an effort to stop the cycle of poverty, Tessa’s project provides skill-building workshops to children living in orphanages, allowing them to gain the skills they need to successfully transition from state care into independence. This project has been a massive success so far, with many young people pursuing further education.

“The most rewarding thing about working over here in Bolivia with TIA is seeing all the teenagers and young people we work with thrive, grow, learn, and develop into the best version of themselves—knowing that some of that is thanks to our work,” she says.

Tessa now has big dreams for TIA. She would like to work with the Bolivian government in creating a system that offers support to all young people in the state care system when they leave at 18. She hopes that TIA will eventually become an expert in providing advice and training to organisations, both government and non-government, in working with state care leavers. Tessa ultimately hopes to expand TIA’s work outside of Bolivia.

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