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Volunteer in Bolivia
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Volunteering in Bolivia with Amizade

Learn the Truths About Volunteer Service

In the spring of 2005 I worked as a volunteer in Cochabamba, Bolivia, through Amizade, an organization for global service-learning. To learn firsthand about the organization I first participated in its 2-week program in the Navajo Nation, Arizona. I was impressed by Amizade’s commitment to providing a positive experience for both volunteers and the host community through its focus on sustainable community-initiated projects, and by its utilization of capable and knowledgeable local coordinators. For a long-term project I chose Bolivia.

Amizade arranged for me to live with a Bolivian host family and provided daily Spanish tutoring while I worked at a therapeutic and educational center for multi-handicapped children and young adults.

Initially, I wondered how I could be of service to students who are both mentally and physically challenged and whose language is Spanish. I soon learned, however, that children have a universal language. The children of CEOLI delighted in teaching me Spanish words as much as I delighted in introducing them to play dough, Uno, and bubbles. I soon found many ways to be useful in the classroom and began to feel a part of the multi-disciplinary team contributing to the students’ growth and life experience. They taught me the first “truth” of volunteer service and cultural exchange: no matter one’s country of origin, ethnicity, religion, language, physical or mental status, people are more alike than different.

CEOLI’s administrator and the small staff of teachers and therapists accomplish amazing things with limited resources. Now, back in the U.S., their dedication motivates me to find ways to persuade individuals and organizations to provide walkers and wheelchairs and give more students the freedom of mobility. A second “truth” of volunteer service and cultural exchange is the importance of cross-cultural networking.

Before traveling to Cochabamba I spent a week traveling on my own, four days of which I stayed in Samiapata, a small community in a valley between Santa Cruz, my first stop, and Cochabamba. In Samiapata I stayed at La Vispera, a small organic farm with guest cabanas. The hosts of La Vispera helped me make the transition from the intensity of the U.S., to the pace and culture of Bolivia. (Greetings and conversations in the valley generally begin with “Todo tranquillo?”) In addition to facilitating excursions to archeological sites, they arranged an afternoon on a remote farm where I could visit with a family that lives almost entirely off the land.

An unexpected benefit of staying at La Vispera was the opportunity to meet other international travelers (Irish, Estonian, Bolivian), who gave me a glimpse of how others view the U.S., and volunteer service. I felt connected to the global community in a new way.

For More Info

Amizade Global Service-Learning. Amizade (the Portuguese word for friendship) offers a variety of sites and both short- and long-term volunteer options for people of all ages, along with study abroad, and internship options of all kinds. Costs vary by site and length of time and include room and board, tutoring, and a stipend to the volunteer site. Language immersion is integral to Amizade’s long-term programs.

La Vispera: Samaipata, Bolivia; www.lavispera.org, info@lavispera.org. Daily rates at cabanas or campsites with full bathroom facilities—including breakfast on the produce from their organic farm—are $20 to $40. Other meals can be purchased from the open-air garden café. The Dutch hosts, Pieter and Marga, have lived in Bolivia for many years and offer a variety of excursions by foot, car, or horseback. They use their resources and expertise to support the community.