Learn & Serve: “48: A Slum Experience” Retreat!

January 19-21, 2013, eighty participants and thirty-four staff stepped into the life of over one billion people on the planet at “48: A Slum Experience”. This intense retreat allows high school participants, adult leaders, and college-aged staff to experience life in an urban slum environment.

Participants and staff of the 2013 “48: A Slum Experience” retreat celebrate gaining a new awareness of slum life around the world.

This year, our fourth-annual “48” highlighted life in El Alto, Bolivia. El Alto is a thriving urban center located near the capital city of Bolivia, La Paz. It is a city built by rapid urbanization; rural farmers from the Altiplano region are relocating to El Alto at staggering rates. This rapid urbanization causes many problems for cities in developing countries, and El Alto is not immune to these issues.

Participants had the opportunity to interact with volunteers portraying the stories of people from El Alto, Bolivia.


Learn & Serve portrays life in urban slum environments by using college-aged and young-adult volunteers to represent common roles in said communities. Thirty- four volunteers took on the stories of people currently living in El Alto ranging from store-owners to workers to women trapped in prostitution. It was into this community that participants were invited to assimilate.

Students receive their family descriptions and prepare to enter into the 48-hour slum experience.


Participants at “48” were divided into family groups and given a task: travel to our represented neighborhood and become a part of the community. Many of these family groups were representing stories of farmers relocating to the city, a common occurrence in El Alto. Participants then spent roughly forty-eight hours in the community working to meet their needs and faced issues such as lack of employment opportunities, high prices for rent and food, and restricted access to water. These struggles challenged youth to examine what was truly necessary for their family’s existence. Additionally, they were encouraged to use their outside experiences to impact the community.

Neighborhoods in El Alto are very community-focused. During “48” participants were forced to work with a neighborhood council of land-owners to meet their needs. Students were encouraged to purchase land instead of renting so that they too could have input and control over the workings of the community. This allowed participants to experience not only material poverty, but also how community dynamics differ in these environments.

During “48,” participants provided for their families by working in culturally-relevant jobs, such as thatching roofs.


Feedback from participants has been very positive. Madison Simpson, a sophomore from McEachern Memorial UMC of Powder Springs, Georgia, said that despite the challenges, the experience taught her several things. “Though this was a physically and spiritually challenging weekend, I would not [trade] the amazing experience I was given,” Simpson said. One issue that touched Simpson, along with others, was the reality of prostitution and sex trafficking. “This year… I was faced with a reality that I had never really experienced— prostitution & sex slavery,” Simpson said. “Though this was a simulation, the realism of it stirred something inside me and ignited this passion I didn’t even know I had.”

This issue also impacted Kelsey Harris, an adult leader with First Baptist Church of LaGrange, Georgia. Harris shared her story of her family group’s struggle, and her entry into simulated prostitution, on her blog. Harris entered herself into prostitution only to have her family work to free her. “This scenario broke me. I got to physically feel what the Lord has done for me,” Harris said. “He bargained and bought and fought for my freedom. He worked all day. He paid extra. He did whatever it took to free me. Talk about a precious feeling of worth.”

Though there has been immediate feedback from the event, an experience like “48” often takes time to fully set in. The Learn & Serve staff prays that all participants gained a better understanding of life in urban slum environments and will continue to let the event impact their lives.

If you were a part of this year’s “48: A Slum Experience” we would love to hear from you! Leave us a comment and tell us what you experienced during the event.

For more information about Learn & Serve’s programs, visit our website or email learnandserve@sifat.org.

Check out Paige Bierman’s, an adult leader from First Baptist Church on the Square of Lagrange, Georgia, blog about her experience at “48!”