How to Find Volunteer Projects in Xela, Guatemala
EntreMundos is a Key to Making a Difference
Before I came to Xela (known officially as Quetzaltenango), I had tried all the usual ways of landing a free, short-term, volunteer positions across Latin America. I had surfed the web, I had followed guidebook recommendations, and I had tried asking around at local language schools. Some methods were more fruitful than others and, without a doubt, fantastic broad-based resources, such as Volunteer South America and
the Volunteer section of Transitions Abroad, do exist.
But when I had zeroed in on a particular city, I found that once I had weeded out the more expensive, fully organized options, there was often little left. Then, while preparing for my arrival in Xela, I came across locally run EntreMundos.
It was on their website (see below) that I first realized that I had come across something special. Their extensive list of volunteer positions is not merely a list of web links, each taking you to another website you have to dig through. (In fact, some of their listed organizations are too small to have their own websites.) Instead, one can make very specialized searches of the opportunities in their database, refining your results through criteria like time frame, time of year, type of work, and Spanish proficiency. This, I know from experience, saves a lot of time.
But if you did no more than go to their website,
you would be missing a lot. The database searches, via your own
choices and perhaps due to a backlog of entries, do not always
show all the possible opportunities. A visit to their blue-doored
office, just a few of blocks from the city’s main park, allows you to page through a large stack of binders organized by theme: Environment, Children, Human Rights, etc. The budget-conscious will find plenty, if not the majority of these opportunities offer free to participation. Time spans will satisfy all, as they range from 1 year to 1 week. Showing up in person will also allow you to get a bit more information from one of the three staff members in either English or Spanish — though
both are second languages to friendly current director Yet van
Oenen. The visit does entail a roughly $3 donation.
Let's take my own experience. I began by searching the website before arriving in Xela and found three strong possibilities: a children’s home, a daycare facility, and a women’s support organization. After a few wrong turns, I found the door for my first choice, the children’s home, made my introduction and was told to call back the next day. Not wanting to sit idle, but also not wanting to bother a bunch of organizations directly, I headed to the EntreMundos office. There I learned that the children’s home was likely only being polite, for though they offer 2-week positions, they generally prefer longer-term volunteers to provide a more stable atmosphere for the kids. That ruled out the daycare as well, so I began paging through the binders.
I ended with a big list, but two top choices: a city tree-planting program and a women’s weaving cooperative. Arriving at the headquarters of the first—a language school—I encountered my only real EntreMundos dud: the program was only for the school’s students. (The school, it seemed, had not properly represented the program). My second choice, however, proved to be the one: Trama Textiles. I could start the next day, there were no fees involved, the short time span was no problem, and the hours were flexible. Moreover, there was no shortage of things to do: over the next fortnight, I posted publicity, edited a history of weaving, organized the computer’s file system, tended the cooperative’s store, and designed benefit party tickets, among other activities. I had hoped to make greater use of the Spanish I do know, but otherwise it was an ideal fit.
Beyond working as a bridge “between worlds” (the translation of “entre mundos”), specifically those of volunteers like myself and Xela-based NGOs, EntreMundos publishes a newsletter. For the benefit of all those learning Spanish, it is completely bilingual, down to the publishing credits. Articles take a progressive slant in tackling some hefty topics, with recent issues focused on globalization, the environment, and immigration. Classifieds in the back provide a quick reference to a some of their huge catalog of volunteer positions. Finally, aspiring writers and photographers should take note that the publication welcomes story and photo submissions “of all kinds.”
Beyond volunteers, EntreMundos is one of the hubs in Xela’s lively cultural scene. The website offers a listing of what’s happening in the city and the magazine devotes a page to a monthly calendar. The organization itself has regular benefit parties, especially during the high summer season, when the influx of volunteers and Spanish students is particularly high. If throwing back Cuba Libres and sangria isn’t your thing, the organization also puts on regular Tuesday conferences — with an admission fee of about US$2 — on topics like fair trade, mining, and illegal immigration.
While it is unfortunate there are not more organizations like EntreMundos bridging the cultural gap in Central American cities, they could not have chosen a better city to locate. For Spanish language learners, there is scarcely a place with more options at affordable prices. Even if you are not learning Spanish, many schools will happily set you up with a homestay. And despite the profusion of schools — some in the business count as many as 35 — the city retains its rough and original edges, giving it a very different feel from postcard-perfect Antigua. Nevertheless, long-term volunteers will have plenty of recourses to fight off homesickness: a couple of American-style bakeries, at least three English language bookstores, and restaurants specializing in every cuisine from French to Texan.
Moreover, among the many weekend getaway
companies are two with a conscience: the well-known Quetzaltrekkers who
have been guiding hikes for 20 years to support the Hogar Abierto
and Escuela de la Calle. These projects give housing and education
to children in need. Very dedicated volunteers work as guides,
and manage virtually all aspects of the organization.
is also Hike + Help. And with smoking Volcano
Santa Maria and Central America’s highest point, Volcano
Tajumulco, nearby, don’t let the opportunity slide.
Overall, EntreMundos does a sterling job hooking up outsiders with local NGOs in a city packed with a wide variety of low-cost, high-impact opportunities. Indeed, if anything outnumbers Xela’s legion of language schools, it is volunteer organizations. Add the international cuisine, tour companies, nightlife and bookstores, all of which coexist with a fully functioning Guatemalan city, and you will find there is little Xela does not offer.