Jenny and Ryan completed the Spanish and volunteering programme in Montevideo in February 2010. Here they share their experiences and offer a few tips to anyone thinking about doing something similar. Jenny is an experienced volunteer, and spent a year teaching in Kenya as part of the Peace Corps. For Ryan, it was the first time he had volunteered and, as an IT professional, admits that he had previously had “way more experience working with computers than with kids”! For both of them it was the start of a big adventure, as it was the first step in making Uruguay their new home for the time being. Currently living in a beautiful beach town with their St Bernard dog, they plan to stay in Uruguay for a year or two.

What made you pick Uruguay?
Ryan:
We picked it over other Latin American countries mostly because it is one of the cheaper countries to live in that is also still stable and secure (low-crime). I’ve so far fallen in love with it. The people are very friendly and very laid back.

Why did you decide to combine volunteering and a Spanish course?
Jenny:
Volunteering is a great way to learn about the culture, language, and give a little bit back to the community.

Can you tell us a bit about the project where you volunteered?
J:
We volunteered with two groups. The first group worked with underprivileged youth ages 12 to 18. We met them at a lake once a week and helped them with boating, swimming, and working out strategies.
R: The other group was the Juventud Por Cristo which is an organisation focusing on after-school programmes that provide kids with some life skills as well as combating abuse.
J: We met the kids at the youth centre three times a week and either played games, did art projects, took dance lessons, or went on an afternoon outing with them.

What was your role?
J:
Basically just to help supervise and teach the youth about life in the U.S. It was fun to interact in a positive environment with the youth.
R: As far as working directly with the kids, my role was minor. Our language skills weren’t up to par to enable us to interact with the instructors or kids much. However the Juventud Por Cristo did require a database to manage their inventory, which they sell to other anti-abuse organisatins around Latin America. This was a specialised project which used my skill set directly.

What were the biggest challenges of your volunteer placement?
R:
Finding a way to make an impact. These organisations plan projects based on their more permanent volunteers or paid help, and one month of volunteering was not enough for them to plan or schedule projects around us. I had never volunteered before, and this hindered my ability to jump in and help. It was hard for me to understand the type of projects I should/could create for the kids.

What were the best moments?
J:
The dance class was a lot of fun. An instructor came to the youth center and taught the kids once a week and it was a lot of fun making mistakes and learning with the kids. Another good moment was taking boats out with the kids and playing in the lake
R: Playing on the rope swing (over the water) with some of the high-school boys. We were showing off various flips and jumps between all of us.

Do you think volunteering helped with your Spanish?
J:
Yes, in the afternoons at the school we would often speak in English with the other students, but being forced to speak in Spanish while volunteering definitely helped with my confidence and speaking more regularly.
R: Yes, and I think that the more Spanish you know, the more impact volunteering will have as far as helping your Spanish.

What advice would you give someone considering this kind of project?
J:
If you have at least an intermediate level of Spanish, then this is a great way to improve your Spanish, get involved in the community and learn more about Uruguayan culture. It is also helpful if you come with some ideas of good games, songs, or other ways interact with youth.
If you only have a basic level of Spanish, plan on this being a little more difficult and be ready to be outgoing and play charades.
R: These organizations are small organizations. That’s good and bad. It’s great because most of the people in the oganization work directly with the kids (where as larger organizations spend a lot more time on administration and methods to get donations). It’s bad because they don’t spend as much time on administration and their projects are too small to effectively absorb random volunteers.
That means, come ready to be flexible and work with them in the very beginning to define a project which you can run yourself or with a little help. These organizations want to provide kids with life skills and your project could be a mini-version of some of the projects the organization already does. The Juventud Por Cristo taught the kids cooking, gardening, dancing (salsa when we were there), computer skills and many other things.

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