Sneak Peek at Only in Amigos #2

Originally published on 10/15/2016 under the name “Sneak peek at ‘Only in Amigos’ #3.” Lead image credit: Elizabeth Robinson. Lead image caption: “The view from our host family’s house in the morning. Yes, those are clouds and a mountain. To the right, you can see the washing basin.”

Below is a second-edit draft of my upcoming book, Only in AmigosOnly in Amigos is a short, nonfiction guidebook depicting my adventures in Ecuador volunteering with Amigos de las Americas. It features a mix of vital information about the program as well as the hilarious antics that come with any big adventure. For more information on Amigos de las Americas, please visit their website at
​ www.AmigosInternational.org

Amigos Quick Facts

         I’ve put this as the first chapter not because it’s the most interesting, but because I just threw a bunch of information and vocabulary words with single-sentence explanations.
So now I’m throwing a bunch of vocabulary words at you with multiple-sentence explanations. Each topic will be covered more in-depth with anecdotes and examples in later chapters. Each chapter is centered around an important aspect of Amigos. What are the rules? What is the food like? How do we make a project? This chapter is meant to be a brief, factual overview of Amigos.

What is Amigos de las Américas?
In short: a non-profit organization for cultural exchange.

Youth leaders (generally volunteers in high school or college) travel to a Latin American country, where they will spend 4-8 weeks living in a rural community. Volunteer groups live with a host family, manage daily “camps” (a true Amigo says campamentos) with community youth, and facilitate a project made by and for the entire community. Amigos offers leadership/adulthood skills, Spanish immersion, cultural immersion, and much, much more.

And as a side-note: Amigos is not an acronym, it is an abbreviation. Many people want to write it as “AMIGOS,” but there is absolutely no logical reason to put it in all caps. Uncultured swine…

Training
Training before the summer (before you arrive in-country[1]) can take place in one of two ways. There is the “spread your training out over the year” way (which I took), and the “cram it all into a week” way. Both ways have their advantages and disadvantages.

  1. Spreading the training out: This training takes place with your local Amigos chapter. Mine, the Houston Chapter, is the original chapter (and the best, of course). I found that it regularly kept up my excitement for the summer and allowed me to have my questions answered by an actual human being in a timely manner. The difficulty was making time every other Sunday or so for the meeting, since it was about an hour’s drive into Houston. I “carpooled” with two girls from my high school, which really meant that my mom drove 3 people back and forth instead of just her own kid. This type of training is also much more useful in terms of fundraising to pay for the Amigos trip, since volunteers have the full force of the chapter to aid them. You can miss a meeting here and there, but if you miss too many then you are automatically sent to the second form of training…
  2. Cramming it all in: The official name for this training is International Office (IO) training. One boy who could have gone to the Houston Chapter training chose this instead. It used to take place at the Amigos headquarters in Miami at the beginning of the summer. Now that the headquarters has moved to Houston, it takes place there. It’s wonderful for Amigos volunteers coming from areas or foreign countries where Amigos has not established official chapters and for those who are too busy during the year. And I suppose you might also see a glimpse of Houston before you get to the training office. I swear we have interesting stuff! Museums, NASA, a zoo…museums, shopping…a zoo…NASA…I think there might be a food truck, too.

Those training options are both for general training. General training covers basic safety, the Rules of Conduct, cultural sensitivity, a bit of Spanish (if your Spanish is  deemed unsatisfactory, you are assigned homework to improve it before the summer.), how to deal with culture shock, etc.
But then there’s in-country training, which is specialized for each country. I chose Ecuador as my country, so my Ecuador training took place in—you guessed it—Ecuador. This in-country training is officially known as Briefing[2]. This is where you meet up with all the Amigos volunteers who chose your same country, where you’re assigned your location, and where you get your partner.

Program:
Your program[3] is essentially the country in which you volunteer. However, there can be several programs per country, and the programs are named for their provinces, not the countries themselves. For instance, I volunteered with the “Cotopaxi” program, not the “Ecuador” program. Each program has its own project theme(s)[4]. Project theme(s) designate the overall theme of your summer. What are you focusing on? What is your goal? What are you teaching? Common themes are women’s rights, health education, and environmental impact.

CBI Project
CBI stands for Community Based Initiative[5]. Volunteers are put into groups of 2 or 3, and each of these groups must complete a project (to the best of their abilities) during their Amigos summer.

What is a project? Essentially, it is something that will improve community life. It can be anything from clearing a public park, painting a mural on a school wall, digging latrines, setting up a health education program in local clinics, getting a swimming pool, establishing a community-owned chicken farm, anything. The project should always be based on the needs and desires of the community, and should be sustainable[6]. What is sustainable? It is something the community members already have a fair amount of knowledge about, something that they will be able to maintain for years after the volunteers have left. No quantum physics, no SmartBoards in the classrooms, no penguin breeding program, no advanced waterpark. Volunteers must fill out a project proposal in order to gain the $400 in grant money from Amigos, but there are also opportunities for getting other grants (becas). All other required funds must be fundraised. But, in my experience, this seems to rarely be needed. After all, if the community already knows about, say, farming, then they probably already have many of the required materials. The men in my community worked in construction and most members had plenty of farm animals and crops to feed those animals.
Volunteers generally have much flexibility in their project choice, though the final decision should always be made by the community members. Some programs, such as mine in Cotopaxi, Ecuador, have project themes. Cotopaxi’s was Entrepreneurship, meaning that our CBI Project had to be a business, whose proceeds went to improving the community overall.

The Camps
Camps/campamentos are week-daily sessions with community youth. They often take place in a school or, in my case, some kind of public/communal building. There campamentos are designed to improve your leadership, let you get to know the community, interact with local youth on a personal level, educate local youths about certain topics, and pass the torch of youth leadership onto the local youths.

Campamentos are designed and led by volunteers, but some topics covered may be influenced by your country’s theme or partner organization. Campamentos are a mix of activities meant to educate about a certain topic (for instance, community service, environmental health, or hygiene) and fun games.

The Officials
Who’s in charge?

  • At local chapters, the people in charge are generally a mixture of adult volunteers and vet trainers[7].

o   Adult volunteers may or may not have volunteered on a project with Amigos. They generally organize and keep track of all members, including the vet trainers.
o   Vet trainers are former Amigos volunteers. They may have done a program with Amigos the previous year, or fifty years previous. The Vet Trainers may work as adult volunteers, interviewers (yes, there are required interviews.), or trainers. When volunteers are organized into routes[8] during training, each route will have a Route Leader[9], who is a vet trainer. There may also be other vet trainers who are not Route Leaders.

  • In country, the Project Director[10] is in charge. He/she may also have an Assistant Director[11]. Underneath the Project Director is a multitude of Project Supervisors (P-Sups)[12]. The P-Sup (pea soup) is the person who interacts with volunteers on a weekly or semiweekly basis in community. A P-Sup will be placed in charge of several groups of volunteers (my P-Sup was in charge of 7 people in total). A P-Sup spends most of his/her time making rounds throughout the communities to which her volunteers are assigned (one community per group of 2-3 volunteers, so my P-Sup had 3 communities to visit each week). The rest of the time they spend at Staff House[13], the location where the Project Staff[14] (Project Supervisors and Project Director(s)) stay throughout the trip. P-Sups often stay overnight in communities.

The Partnership
If you do Amigos, you will have one or two partners. You will not be alone in community. However, if you are already well through your Amigos summer and your partner(s) go(es) home, you are allowed to stay in community alone. But, normally, volunteers must have a partner, for their own safety and emotional wellbeing (it can be difficult in a strange place with no one to talk to in English.).
My parents, and many others, were concerned about co-ed partnerships. Specifically, parents didn’t want their little girls a thousand miles away alone with a strange boy. An understandable concern, though in Amigos these types of fears are unwarranted. The possible types of partner combinations are as follows:

  1. Girl-Girl
  2. Girl-Girl-Girl
  3. Boy-Boy
  4. Boy-Boy-Boy
  5. Girl-Girl-Boy

So there are co-ed partnerships, but the two girls will always outnumber the single boy.
I would like to stress, however, that I have never heard of a volunteer being put in jeopardy by his/her partner. Many partners become life-long friends, no matter what gender, race, religious affiliation, or political orientation they may differ on.

During Briefing, volunteers are asked what type of partnership they want. Gender wasn’t a factor I was concerned about. There are plenty of other things to consider during this private interview with the Project Supervisors. For instance, I wanted to have a native-speaker as a partner to help me understand community members and improve my Spanish. I also wanted to have an extroverted/outgoing partner to help me out of my shell. Some people may want a partner who likes to play soccer, or a partner that has the same sleeping schedule as they do, or a partner who has the same diet as they do, or someone from the same region of the US. Any factor a volunteer requests is taken into account when the Project Staff assign partnerships.

During Briefing, we were told to keep a list of individuals who we absolutely did not want to be partnered with. And trust me, three days is plenty of time to get to know your potential partners.
There is no guarantee that a volunteer will get the exact partnership of his/her choice, but from what I’ve seen, they normally come pretty darn close. For instance, I got an outgoing partner who liked soccer, as requested, but originally I did not get a trio or a native speaker like I’d asked. As you’ll read later in this book (I hope), I later ended up with all four of my requests: a trio, a native speaker, a soccer-player, and an extrovert.

Twenty and Counting Reasons to Volunteer with Amigos

  1. Improved Leadership Skills
  2. Improved Spanish (and possibly some indigenous dialects)
  3. More comprehensive world view/worldly experience
  4. Miscellaneous skills (for instance, I learned business planning as well as how to milk cows)
  5. Improved babysitting skills (in reference to the camps)
  6. Increased confidence and social skills
  7. Lifelong friendships
  8. A million and one cool stories to tell (I made a whole book out of them)
  9. Experience another culture
  10. Helps a lot on college applications
  11. Learn how to fundraise
  12. Learn how to trouble-shoot
  13. Improve your people/communication skills
  14. Contribute something real to the world, something that will likely last years into the future. The Costa Rican project in 2014, for instance, involved clearing paths in future wildlife reservations
  15. Improved independence
  16. Makes you feel grateful for what you have
  17. Scholarships and connections
  18. Get in shape
  19. Get letters of recommendation from adults and officials you meet
  20. Got a spare $6,000 lying around?
  21. Brag about how your child is changing the world while everyone else was at the mall
  22. There are a million more reasons to discover, from trivial to life-changing

Footnotes: 

[1] In-Country: In your project’s country. I volunteered in Ecuador, so every moment I spent in community, Quito, or any other Ecuadorian location, I was in-country.

[2] Briefing: Three days of intensive training in a large city of a volunteer’s country. This time is for covering country-specific training, meeting future partners and supervisors, familiarizing local partner organizations, and getting acclimated to the country itself.

[3] Program/Project: Named after the province where it takes place. Normally, there is one project in each country, but some may have two or even three. Every project is unique. Volunteers rank their top five project locations, and normally get their first or second choice.

[4] Project Theme: Every project has a unique project theme, a goal or mission that volunteers are working to accomplish through their projects and campamentos. For example: promoting women’s rights, promoting environmental friendliness, promoting entrepreneurship, promoting hygiene, etc.

[5] Community Based Initiative Project: Volunteer groups facilitate a project created by and for their communities. These projects are intended to better the community’s standard of living, aid in the project theme, and foster a sense of community strength.

[6] Sustainable: Lasting a long time and/or able to be maintained by the community without outside help.

[7] Vet Trainer: A teen or young adult that has volunteered with Amigos before and trains new volunteers.

[8] Route: A training subgroup, often treated as individual teams for more competitive activities.

[9] Route Leader: A vet trainer in charge of the route

[10] Project Director: A young adult who has volunteered with Amigos before. He or she is in charge of all the project supervisors of the project, and serves as an intermediate with adult professionals.

[11] Assistant Director: Second in command

[12] Project Supervisor (P-Sup): A young adult who has done Amigos before who volunteers to manage volunteer groups. Each P-Sup (pea soup) monitors about 4-10 volunteers, and is their intermediary with the world beyond community. P-Sups also provide moral support, valuable advice, delivery services, and transportation for important events.

[13] Staff House: The headquarters of the Project Director(s) and P-Sups, owned by generous local hosts.

[14] Project Staff: The Project Director(s) and Project Supervisors


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