Volunteering — While Learning Spanish — in Central America

View from the canopy tour, high up in the hills in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua

Following up on my last blog, Studying Spanish Along the Pan-American Highway,  this piece will explore some the volunteerism options I’m considering for Spanish-language immersion learning in Central America next year.  Volunteering is a great, inexpensive way to study a language and also learn about the local culture.   And since cultural knowledge and understanding (gestures, choice of vocabulary) need to be connected to actual language acquisition in a systematic way,  having conversations with native speakers enhances language skills and adds to increased levels of cultural, political and historical context.  As a volunteer in a foreign country, it’s typical to live with a host family or stay with a volunteer group’s housing.   The goal is, essentially, to force you to speak the local language.

Many volunteer groups travel en masse from the U.S. to Central America, and they’re often Christian mission groups.  We ran into quite a few such groups on our travels: Most were simply on a mission to help; others were combining some Spanish language; and one even combined mission and surfing.  But this approach is not for my family. We plan to pursue the volunteer immersion in-country, not as part of a larger group traveling to the country.  We have found quite a wide variety to choose from; volunteer programs abound!   There are week-long, month-long and – for those who have the time –adventurous year-long programs.   Some programs are very specific in the kind of volunteer work they do; others have a variety of work opportunities.  This means there’s something for everyone: whether you’re a college student looking to build a resume, a family looking to experience a new culture or a couple looking to do something other than vacation.

Panama Viejo, the centuries-old ruins next to the skyscrapers of today in Panama City.

To begin my search, I began with reputable sites that offer global volunteer opportunities, beginning with Volunteer Abroad, and searched for specific Central American programs.  On its home page, Volunteer Abroad allows visitors to refine a search by country, duration, volunteer activity and region.  I clicked on Central America, and a substantial list displayed scores of organizations offering diverse volunteer opportunities throughout the region.  Prices varied but language instruction was not generally included.

Cross-Cultural Solutions, recently noted in a New York Times article on budget volunteer excursions, also offers established volunteer programs in Guatemala and Costa Rica.  Volunteers are involved in all sorts of activities, such as caring for the elderly and disabled, teaching English to eager students and having discussions with experts about the history, economy and education of the country.  Both of these Central American programs offer cultural activities, but if you want more formal language courses, you’ll need to add that in – and the price goes up.  The average price for a one-week package runs about $2,000 and includes lodging, food and a contribution to the local organization which, in total, is tax-deductible.

Another well-known group, the Global Volunteer Network offers a wide range of volunteering opportunities in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Panama.  Volunteers must apply to specific projects that are unique to each country.  For example, in Costa Rica, volunteers can assist local communities in their conservation efforts to save the endangered Olive Ridley sea turtles.  In Guatemala, volunteers can help protect neglected and abandoned animals.  Volunteers in Panama can work directly within communities, whether it is developing sports teams for children or helping single and/or young mothers provide for their families financially.

Each of these three volunteer programs offers a variety of volunteer opportunities in the countries I’m interested in, varying degrees of Spanish-language lessons (if not built in they can be added) and plenty of free time to explore.  I’ve just begun to scratch the surface and have quite a bit of research ahead of me, made a bit easier by readers who sent me specific tips in response to my last blog.

Take, for example, World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming, or WWOOF in Costa Rica and Guatemala.  WWOOF volunteers choose the farm they want to work on and become part of the family, spending  at least a week working on an organic farm, and participating in chores such as harvesting, planting and cleaning pens.  Participants can learn about the ecologies and cultures of these two countries while immersing themselves in the language.  WWOOF operates a “members” program whereby you must pay a modest annual fee to join and to learn about specific opportunities in greater detail.  Members must be 18 years or older and children may go under the supervision of an adult, but only if the host farm allows children (not all do).  As WWOOF members, volunteers do not pay for their board, but then they often stay in tents or primitive accommodations.  A good friend of mine has participated a few times in WWOOF’s programs.  She’s planning on including her young daughter in her next trip.

400 Species of birds live in the Monte Verde Cloud Forest, Costa Rica

If ecology is your passion, Costa Rica’s Centro Científico Tropical may be of interest. Volunteers spend time in the Monteverde Cloud Forest, the most famous forest reserve of its kind in the world.  It is also one of the most important and protected areas in Costa Rica, and conservation is critical.  Volunteers work with reserve personnel to repair and maintain forest paths and live with local Costa Rican (known as Ticas) host families, which provide perfect opportunities to improve Spanish skills and experience the local culture first-hand. 

Habitat for Humanity is one of the best-known humanitarian programs in the world, and its Global International Village volunteer program is unique in that the cities in each country vary from trip to trip. This year, volunteers traveling to Guatemala [http://www.habitatguate.org/] can work in Solola, Baja Verapaz or Totonicapan building houses.  Yet volunteers also have the option to work on one of the large projects in-country; the one currently underway is called the Guatemala Dream Project and involves building more than 250 houses in the poorest areas of Guatemala.  In Nicaragua, volunteers will work in San Rafael del Sur, building homes with brick walls and galvanized zinc roofs.  Habitat also offers its services in Costa Rica where it has four current projects in Nicoya, Esparza, Cartago, Alajuela, Monteverde, Buenos Aires and Rio Claro.  Since Habitat for Humanity requires that the prospective owners of the house contribute their time and effort in construction, too, volunteers work within the local community.

Since Nicaragua is high on my list of countries to return to, I was happy to hear from Joshua Berman, author of several of the Moon travel guides for Central America.  He offers plenty of advice for those considering moving to or setting up extended stays in Nicaragua, and quite a few opportunities for volunteering can be found on the related Moon site. He also lists some Spanish language schools throughout the country.

Whether we choose Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Guatemala or Panama, the opportunity to immerse ourselves in a Central American country next summer is quite appealing.  And although I haven’t experienced any of these programs first-hand, they sound pretty good.  I have two major concerns, however, with pursuing volunteer programs: First, volunteerism seems to take precedence over learning Spanish in many instances, and I think that some sort of traditional classroom experience would benefit my daughters at this stage.  Second, most programs require group lodging or living with a family, and I’m not sure that this arrangement will work for my family.  However, volunteering does seem to be a meaningful way to experience a local culture, and we could improve our Spanish and enrich both our lives and those people we touch through volunteer efforts.

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