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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine March/April 2001
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Volunteer Abroad
Teen Travel

Volunteering as a Teen Makes a Difference

Reflections on a Study of the Student Service Experience with the Amigos de las Americas Organization

“AMIGOS . . . It will change your life,” reads a royal blue bumper sticker that has adorned a world map on my wall since I spent my first summer in Latin America at the age of 16. Amigos de las Americas (AMIGOS) is an international volunteer organization that sends young people to rural villages in Latin America to participate in summers of community service. Its mission is to empower youth leaders, advance community development, and strengthen multicultural understanding in the Americas.

Every year hundreds of young people from all over the U.S. travel to countries around the world armed with hammers, eager hands, and well-intentioned hearts to “make a difference” in the world. Most of these young people return from such experiences slightly dismayed at being unable to resolve the world’s complex problems but find themselves fundamentally changed and fulfilled in intensely personal ways.

As a product of such a life-transforming experience, I decided to write my senior college thesis on the impacts of the AMIGOS international volunteer experience on young people. I surveyed all volunteers who served on the AMIGOS field staff from 1995-2000 and one-third of the volunteers from the same period (200), randomly selected, and asked about their experiences.

In general, participants returned to the U.S. with an increased interest in engaging in community service at home. Many respondents also claimed that their AMIGOS experience made them less materialistic, changed their consumption patterns, and made them more critical of the role of the U.S. in international affairs.

Although “service” is perhaps the most concrete rationale for the existence of international volunteer groups, the actual benefits to communities of the volunteers’ work are often negligible compared with the benefits of the experience to volunteers. Volunteers recognize that the work they do does not materially affect communities in more than a superficial sense: Volunteers may construct a new schoolhouse in a rural village, but that village may not have resources to buy school supplies or books. Volunteers may repair a poor family’s leaky roof, but the children may continue to be malnourished. Volunteers may donate piles of new books for a community library, but the government may not be able to provide a full-time teacher. In the end, most volunteers attribute their positive impact on communities to interactions with individual community members—sharing stories with new friends while learning to make tortillas over an open fire—rather than to contributions of knowledge or materials.

Change occurs slowly in a world whose injustices are deeply rooted in complex socioeconomic systems and historical processes. But programs like AMIGOS expose people at a formative age to these issues firsthand in an intensely personal way. By providing a context for creating connections between young people across cultural boundaries in the developed and developing worlds, international volunteering begins to chip away at these cultural divides. Overseas volunteering engages volunteers in a critical thought process that engenders in young people a sense of social conscience and global responsibility that comes into use in a variety of ways. One volunteer noted that the most salient impact of the experience on participants is the acquisition of a “heightened social awareness which many volunteers will use to give back to the world and commit to helping change the direction of society.”

Participating in an international volunteer program gives volunteers’ idealistic intentions a realistic context and frequently results in a profound personal transformation: Not only are volunteers stereotypes and assumptions challenged as they develop strong personal connections with people in their communities, the small project they carry out justifies their presence. They emerge with a heightened awareness of their own strengths and weaknesses and with a desire to cultivate their ability to effect change in the world.

Although volunteers’ hammers may provide patchy non-solutions to deep-rooted problems, international volunteer work does provide young people with a starting place from which to negotiate their role in an increasingly interconnected global system.

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