AMIGOS Provides Cultural Exchange, Volunteering Program

Spending a few weeks in Mexico or Costa Rica often brings up images of tanning and surfing. For a group of dedicated students, however, a trip to the tropics meant a volunteer opportunity with the Amigos de las Americas program (AMIGOS).

AMIGOS is a nationwide organization composed of various local chapters. Since 1965, it has been organizing volunteer activities in Latin America for high school students from all over the nations.

Volunteers are independent for the majority of the project; they are free to choose their projects and the way in which they execute them. Projects last for six to eight weeks and range from teaching kindergarteners to building latrines.

“[The program focuses on] working with a community and developing it and making them be leaders in their own community,” senior Eloise Duvillier said.

Eloise went to the Dominican Republic this summer through AMIGOS and participated in a project called Youth to Youth, which centers on giving youth workers opportunities to be leaders. She worked with the local youth groups, helping them start a youth-run newspaper and classes that taught about pregnancies and healthy eating.

Volunteers live in their country for six to eight weeks with a host family. From sunup to sundown, they become immersed with the local community and culture. Senior Anna Schneider went to Honduras for her project and also worked with youth.

“We would often bring them things to draw,” Anna said. “They loved drawing.”

Anna also taught English and dental health. She spent her free time writing letters back home, listening to music and watching bootleg movies and “telenovelas” (Spanish soap operas).

Volunteers live with a host family and one to two other volunteers for their trip. During the trip, volunteers essentially become a part of the family.

One of the biggest shocks for the volunteers was the differences between life here and life in their countries.

“We had running water and electricity, and we were pretty lucky to have that,” Anna said. “It was so cold that when I went into the shower I could see my breath.”

The language and cultural barriers also caused a few obstacles at the beginning of the trip.

I went to church with [my hostess] once,” Eloise said. “Everyone is sort of praying out loud and yelling to God. I didn’t understand a word of it either because it was the first week.”

The cultural exchange is often the most memorable aspect of the trip, according to both Anna and Eloise.

“We would just talk about our families together, about my brothers and my parents, and [my host mom] would tell me about her son in America,” Anna said. “Being there really opened your eyes about illegal immigration, because families really rely on it.”

Eloise and Anna encouraged those who want to work on their Spanish and broaden their horizons to join AMIGOS.

“Here we’re all stressed out and everything’s all fast paced,” Eloise said. “There, it’s more relaxed, and people take time to actually enjoy life.”