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Volunteer, Learn a Language

Combine Language Study and Volunteer Work in Guatemala

As soon as I saw the big brown eyes on this particularly small salesperson, I knew I would buy something. She fluttered from person to person hawking typical Guatemalan gifts around the Central Park of Antigua. I watched her sales techniques closely. She would smile, lean on the legs of potential buyers and not go away. I really don't think any one wanted her to leave. Who could resist such a persistent and adorable child?

Flora’s mother hopes no one can resist as she sends her 4-year-old daughter out to work every day selling gifts to the tourists. You may think this is a hard life for a 4-year-old child, but Flora is one of the lucky children of Guatemala. Flora has a family, a home, and most importantly, a job. Since 70 percent of the population in Guatemala lives in extreme poverty, children work to help their families survive.

Thousands of less-fortunate children in Guatemala are without homes and are in danger. Street children sleep in doorways, dodge violence, beg for money, sniff glue, and go hungry.

Bruce Harris, an advocate for children’s issues in Central America, is the executive director of the Latin American youth program called Casa Alianza, a program that offers support and shelter to street children. Since such programs subsist on little private funding, they rely heavily on volunteer workers. The children need caring people to hold them, play with them, and show them that they are loved.

Guatemala offers many affordable opportunities to study the language, learn the culture, and, at the same time, help a child by volunteering your time. To plan a learning holiday in Guatemala the recommended option is first to take an immersion Spanish course at a reputable language school. Then you can practice the language while volunteering for an established children’s program. If you do not need to learn the language, go straight to the youth programs for their current list of volunteer opportunities or join one of the groups that plan trips throughout the year to help communities in need.

Study in Antigua

Although there are other places in Guatemala to learn Spanish, Antigua is the best for those new to the country because hundreds of other students from all over the world are there learning the language as well. (Just be careful not to do what I did at first and chat away in English to the many interesting people from all over the world.) The cost to study Spanish is approximately $80 for a 5-day program of four hours of instruction a day.

In a total immersion program you share the home of a local family. A private room, three meals a day, and a shared bathroom make for quite the homey stay. The time talking with your family is very helpful in your studies of the language. When I would say something like "The meal is very cat today" the family just giggled and corrected me. A homestay costs between $55 and $65 a week. A few schools also provide lodging on their campuses, and some will work with local hotels for special rates if this suits you better.

Choosing a Language School

When choosing a language school, consider the school’s teacher-student ratio and recreational activities. Most schools offer a one-to-one teacher-to-student ratio. You learn the language through conversation, largely about each other, so you become well acquainted. Some schools organize excursions to local villages, coffee plantations, and volcanoes.

If you plan to volunteer after your studies are done, make sure to choose a language program that has a connection with several different volunteer programs. Lilian Santizo, the administrative director of Academia de Profesores Privados de Espanol (A.P.P.E.), told me that A.P.P.E. has an extensive list of programs and will work with you to find the right fit.

Volunteering opportunities are usually with schools, hospitals, orphanages, recreational programs, health programs, and programs for street children.

Volunteer Work Only

If you are interested in volunteering without studying Spanish, the recommended way to do so is to go through one of the language schools, such as Centro Linguistico La Union ( Juan Carlos Martinez, the director of La Union, will help you find a program for no extra fee. Certain schools will set you up with accommodations and volunteer work as an extra service. You can also research volunteer work through the Internet: I have found that is a particularly good web site because it lists programs in Guatemala that are currently looking for volunteers and employees; it also gives you the web sites for the actual programs.

Volunteer work in Guatemalan missions usually involves group trips, most of which are planned through churches and are for a very short period of time. Calling your local churches is the best way to go about finding a church that organizes group volunteer trips to Guatemala. Another way to find mission work is through the Internet at the Global Outreach of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod’s web site for mission work. If you are up to organizing your own group volunteer trip, Helps International and Amerispan will assist you.

Quick Tips

Here are some quick tips on how to choose a study program, and how to get the best deal.

• Since you need to know the language at least at a basic level for participating in most youth volunteer programs, taking language classes, even for a week is highly recommended. You will be working with children, so don’t be shy to use what you learn with your homestay family. Do not pass up the chance to not only practice the language—but also learn more about the Guatemalan culture by living with a local family.

• Many of the language programs are very similar in what they offer, so consider the accommodation options, what kind of activities and volunteers programs they offer, and the cost.

• Activities are usually free, but make sure they offer ones that interest you. Also, find out if your teacher accompanies you on any of these.

• Although usually a little more expensive, studying Spanish in other parts of Guatemala is also recommended because there are less foreigners and more local people with whom to interact.

• Finally, remember that there are many other types of volunteer programs, such as environmental work, farming, and animal care offered through the schools.

For More Info

Academia Profesores Privados de Espanol (A.P.P.E.), See costs at Recreational activities, volunteer opportunities (extensive list). Has volunteer only and accommodations services.