The Gift of Learning

Language Magazine presents a selection of volunteering options designed for mutual learning

International volunteers come in all shapes and sizes. People of all ages, from various backgrounds, income levels, and with different skill sets choose to spend anything from a few weeks to their whole lives volunteering on projects all over the world. However, there is one rule that applies to all volunteers according to the popular guide Alternatives to the Peace Corps: “The volunteer’s most appropriate role is that of a student.”

Even volunteer teachers should consider their trip as a learning experience while recognizing that the improvement of communication skills is one of the greatest gifts that a volunteer can both give and receive.
Everybody has their own reasons for volunteering and some are not exactly altruistic. Volunteering is an affordable way to travel, learn a new language, and add valuable content to your resume while the job market suffers.

Choosing a program can be daunting, so take time to research carefully. You will also be expected to contribute toward the cost of the program, so start saving in good time for your planned trip.
The International Volunteer Program Association ( provides guidelines as a means of ensuring program quality and appropriate volunteer behavior in international/intercultural settings. These exacting guidelines also offer prospective volunteers a reliable basis on which to choose programs but recognize that not all volunteer programs will include every aspect presented, depending on their design and purpose.

The most important part of the selection process is for you to find an organization with which you are comfortable and which can accommodate your goals. To start you on your quest, here are a selection of programs particularly suited to the language educator and student:

Amauta Volunteer Programs has been offering the opportunity to live and work in Peru or Argentina since 1996. Volunteers experience first-hand the rich cultural diversity of Latin-America, while developing Spanish skills and contributing to local society. For every volunteer a project receives, Amauta helps by purchasing items such as medical supplies, food, infrastructure improvements, educational materials, or organizing special events for the children.

All volunteer programs include four weeks of Spanish study, followed by the volunteering work experience. For fluent Spanish-speakers, the course can be shortened.

AYUSA Study Abroad
For educators interested in combining a study abroad and volunteer experience, one option is a customized, faculty-led high school study abroad program with AYUSA Study Abroad, a non-profit that has been facilitating foreign exchange programs for high school students for nearly 30 years. AYUSA’s program offers educators the option of creating their own study abroad program in virtually any country outside North America. Most importantly, faculty leaders are helped to develop specific programs that reflect individual curriculum and academic goals — whether they be foreign language immersion, history and culture, or community development projects.

Community development or volunteer programs are coordinated through AYUSA’s sister company, ProWorld, a social enterprise that matches volunteers with community projects in developing countries. Together, they create and facilitate short-term volunteer programs for students that match the skills and interests of the volunteer group with the needs of the host community. Project options include, but are not limited to: small scale construction, environmental conservation, working with children or projects selected by the local host community. Volunteers work side-by-side with members of the local community for an experiential and service based program.

AYUSA manages all of the details of the program — from development to implementation. Programs are all-inclusive, including airfare, insurance, accommodation, ground transportation, entrance fees, and most meals. In addition, qualified faculty will travel free with a group of students. Community development programs are currently available in fifteen countries in Asia, Africa or Latin America.

Center for Cross-Cultural Study
“Apart from improving my Spanish significantly, it was the most important experience that I had in all my time in Córdoba.” Hendrix Berry was a volunteer for the community development organization Un Techo Para Mi Pais (A Roof for My Country) during her semester abroad in Córdoba, Argentina through the Center for Cross-Cultural Study (CC-CS). Hendrix wanted to maximize her time as a student abroad, and saw volunteering not only as a way to gain work experience and learn more about the culture, but to give back to her host community. During her time as a volunteer, Hendrix helped build houses for immigrants living in one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, and made real connections with the people who lived there. “It was truly a beautiful experience… I came out with great contacts, feeling accomplished as a member of the community.”

Students studying abroad in any CC-CS program in Seville or Alicante, Spain or Córdoba, Argentina have the opportunity to add a volunteer project to their experience. Volunteering gives students a unique perspective into the culture that can not often be achieved through classroom study alone. Cultural interaction, language practice, community service and personal development are only a few of the reasons why CC-CS encourages its students to volunteer. CC-CS’ long-standing relationships with local organizations provides the ease of finding a volunteer placement that suits each student’s individual interests.

With ECELA Spanish Schools, students can learn Spanish and contribute to the local community by volunteering at any of their six locations in Argentina, Chile, and Peru. Each year more than 2,100 students from over 35 countries call ECELA their home abroad. Many choose to go beyond the comfort of the classroom and school activities by assisting in a service project. Each school partners with a nonprofit organization and enthusiastically invites students to join the effort. Participants can make a significant difference with the donation of their time and unique skills.

Since the ECELA Spanish curriculum is consistent across its schools, students can stay in one particular location or combine schools and projects. Volunteer placement is free for students taking a minimum of four weeks of classes.

Options include: In Peru, land of ancient Incan ruins, stunning jungles, and tranquil beaches, building homes and community centers for low-income families in Lima or mentoring at-risk adolescents in Cusco; in Chile, with its top-rate snowboarding, pristine lakes, and moon-like deserts, giving new life to abandoned animals in Viña del Mar or working with underprivileged children in Santiago; or crossing the Andes over to Argentina, home of soccer passion, tango dancing, and gaucho ranches, helping the elderly in Buenos Aires enjoy their golden years or assisting single mothers in Mendoza giving their children a fair chance.

Volunteers come away with much improved Spanish and enhanced cultural appreciation. Even more importantly, they make a valuable contribution to a Latin American community, the same community which will no doubt be home to some of their best memories.

Habla Ya
Besides Spanish lessons, Habla Ya Spanish School offers many different volunteering opportunities for students and non-students alike, who are seeking to make a difference during their trip to Panama.

Some programs require volunteers to have a certain proficiency in Spanish but others do not. REAL Boquete for example, the local recycling program, is mostly run by English speakers, and is always on the lookout for volunteers who are willing to help. The animal shelter is another great opportunity for beginning Spanish speakers, as the role of the volunteers is to care for the animals, feed them, clean the cages and general maintenance tasks of the center.

The school also works with local schools and orphanages, where volunteers should be able to communicate in Spanish, because they will be interacting with local children, playing with them, helping them with their homework, or simply talking to them and being a role model for those who for one or another reason, have been separated from their parents. For these programs, long term volunteers (3+ weeks) are preferred.

GVI offers over 150 project partners in over 40 countries all over the world which provides opportunities in a number of different fields such as environmental research, conservation, education, and community development. They work directly with local communities, international and local charities and governmental organizations to ensure the long term sustainability of programs. In-country staff are qualified professionals that ensure every placement is safe and beneficial to both volunteer and host country.

Every year, GVI sends over 2,000 participants away on volunteer programs, international training courses and ethical internships. To the participant it offers safe, responsible travel experiences, exceptional training and career development opportunities, and facilitates the ability to make a real difference. To its partners it commits all project ownership rights and all work is undertaken fully under their direction, in conjunction with the local community.

GVI has been chosen to work alongside some of the most prominent community development and conservation organizations in the world, including The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Rainforest Concern, The Jane Goodall Institute, South African National Parks and the Mexican National Parks Board, amongst many others.
From 2007, 70 percent of all volunteer contributions received were spent directly in the field.

i-to-i TEFL
i-to-i TEFL is a leading provider of Teaching English as a Foreign Language certification courses. i-to-i has been certifying teachers for 16 years and their TEFL/TESOL courses are internationally recognized and accredited. Whether you’re looking to land a paid teaching contract abroad or to embark on a volunteer teaching project, a certificate from i-to-i is a great place to start. Getting certified through i-to-i grants teachers a lifetime connection to their jobs team and access to thousands of partner schools worldwide. i-to-i also runs fully supported paid teaching internships and volunteer teaching projects all over the world from Asia to Latin America.

One of i-to-i’s most popular teaching destinations is Ecuador. Ecuador’s natural beauty is astounding with a Pacific coastline to the west, a mountainous mid-section and tropical rainforest to the east. The locals are warm and welcoming and the demand for qualified TEFL teachers is high. Ecuador is a fantastic destination for those wanting to live and work in South America, fully explore the country’s stunning beauty and fascinating culture and truly make a difference teaching English while at it. Teaching wages in Ecuador are modest, but so is the cost of living, so many teachers live quite well by local standards. Participants reap the true benefits through gaining valuable life experience interacting with local children to help develop their future. They work in independent language schools and experience teaching a range of students from all age groups. Teachers can opt for a private room in a rented house or choose to stay with a local family which includes food and a truly unique cultural experience.

Supported internship are available in Thailand with i-to-i in May for five months, teaching English with training beforehand and, once in Thailand, free accommodation, complete orientation including a welcome dinner and city tour, a monthly allowance, and 24/7 in-country support.

International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ)
International Volunteer HQ provides volunteering placements in developing countries all over the world. Established in 2007, IVHQ has quickly grown to become one of the world’s leaving volunteer travel organizations. Each year they place over 5000 volunteer travelers into their programs abroad and have a wide range of volunteer travel opportunities in Kenya, Kenya-Maasai, Tanzania, Ghana, South Africa, India, Nepal, Vietnam, Cambodia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Peru, Guatemala, Colombia and Thailand. In 2010-2011, IVHQ plans to open new programs in China, Uganda, Romania and Mexico.

IVHQ assists developing countries by providing volunteers to work in a variety of jobs such as teaching, medical work, HIV/Aids awareness, female empowerment, sports education, construction work, conservation work, surf and swim school, agricultural work, and orphanage assistance. Volunteers can choose to work on projects for various periods of time ranging anywhere from one day to six months.
In addition to the basic volunteer work, IVHQ programs also provide volunteer travelers with access to discount tourist activities within their chosen country. For example, in Tanzania, volunteers can travel on four-day safaris through the Ambolesi and climb Mt Kilimanjaro at a fraction of the cost that other travelers pay.

LPI Global Impact
LPI Global Impact programs offer high school students the opportunity to study and volunteer in a foreign country. Month-long summer programs immerse students in the Spanish language through classes at universities, cultural activities, weekend trips, and participation in volunteer service projects. Volunteering exposes them to the challenges facing their host community and allows them to make a positive impact, while gaining valuable international experience and volunteer service hours.

The LPI program is designed for students who are interested in improving their Spanish language skills and also donating their time and effort to making a difference in others’ lives. The program is a unique blend of balanced study, volunteer, activity, and free time, which allows students to get as much as possible out of their time abroad. Upon arrival students attend an orientation that provides them with an introduction to the local history and culture, living with a homestay, taking classes at the university, and adjusting to life in their host country. The full-time on-site staff provides students with all the support that they will need throughout their stay.

For the first two weeks, students are enrolled in college-level Spanish classes at the intermediate to advanced level. For the second two weeks, they engage in volunteer activities with local organizations for 4-5 hours a day. Volunteer options generally place students in a variety of service areas, including ecology/wildlife preservation, social work, education, and urban beautification. Daily progress reports and group meetings help students track their progress and develop important teamwork and leadership skills. For example, in the summer of 2010, the Costa Rica group worked to repair a dilapidated school and taught English to the children who attend the school. In Mexico, students worked to repair and construct a playground at an orphanage. Apart from the valuable experience gained, students also receive a college transcript for 40-45 contact hours, which translates as roughly one college semester course, and a volunteer certificate for 40-60 hours of service.

Orphanage Outreach
Orphanage Outreach provides service-learning opportunities in the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, teaching basic English and Spanish literacy to local school children.

The organization works with orphaned, abandoned, and disadvantaged children who live in very poor rural areas, far from the large cities and tourist areas. Although the simplicity of life in these poor communities has an intrinsic beauty, educational opportunities for these children are sorely lacking. The country might require each school to teach English, but there are few qualified English teachers available in the more rural areas. Children are expected to read, but there are no Spanish children’s books available.

This is where volunteers step in — to complement the services available from local schools. Short term volunteers teach basic English vocabulary classes to instill enthusiasm and confidence to learn English; longer term volunteers teach curriculum based lessons. When teaching Spanish literacy, it is often the first time a local student has held a children’s book.

Orphanage Outreach has been providing service-learning opportunities in Latin American countries for American and Canadian high school and college students since 1994. Over 10,000 volunteers have participated. Volunteer opportunities are available for one week and longer.

TakingITGlobal (TIG) is a non profit organization with an online social networking platform of over 4.5 million global users per year. Often described as a “social network for social good,” the award-winning portal is available in 12 different languages. TIG is committed to capacity building and sustainable development of young leaders between the ages of 13-30 by offering a diverse set of educational resources and action tools intended to inspire, inform and involve. Through a multilingual, online learning community and innovative education programs, TIG seeks to empower youth to take informed action to build a more peaceful, inclusive and sustainable world.
TIGed is the educational component of TIG. It provides educators with themed lesson plans on specific global issues, training toolkits for enhanced digital literacy, discussion forums to share best practices with other educators, and virtual classrooms with digital tools such as blogs, maps, digital image galleries, live video chats and more.

In late November, TIG will launch the Sprout e-course in Spanish with the Government of Extremadura (Spain). Sprout is a web-based six week course for aspiring social entrepreneurs to help launch their project ideas. Applicants are selected based on the strength of their proposals and receive training and mentorship to develop their projects. Thanks to the continued support of the Pearson Foundation, the Sprout program now includes the Pearson Fellowship for Social Innovation; this international fellowship program selects the most deserving plans developed during the Sprout E-course and provides monetary support to 12 young social innovators to launch their projects.

TIG provides highly competitive internship opportunities available on a nearly constant basis, with a particular interest in candidates with a multilingual background. Multilingual volunteers can apply for translation positions that require strong language skills and demonstrated team work abilities. Our mandate is to provide youth with highly tailored training opportunities in our Toronto head office. Interns have the opportunity to benefit from guidance & mentorship from current staff and increase their working knowledge of the non-profit sector.

United Planet
United Planet is about building a better world, one relationship at a time. They work with people in their communities to find meaningful, helpful work for the volunteers, placing them in the homes of local families, so they can form relationships and learn about the realities and joys of daily life.

United Planet tailors its programs for volunteers abroad to fit their needs exactly. Volunteers can travel for any length of time, from one week to one year. They can work in any one of 40 countries, all over the world. They can choose the project that meets their interests and skills: fighting poverty, working in an orphanage, teaching, empowering girls and women, and construction.

Volunteers return from their trips brimming with ideas and energy. They usually keep in touch with their host families, and often start new projects to support the communities where they stayed.

Wasiymi Wasiki
Wasiymi Wasiki works to reduce poverty in Peru through improved education. Its main initiative, Conectados (Connected), installs and operates independent community computer education centers in rural schools in Peru. Increased technology access in schools reinvigorates teachers and students by transforming the traditional drill-based classroom into a dynamic experience for both. Parents are closely involved at all stages, so they gain new relevance to their children as they understand the digital revolution and are able to talk as a family about the learning experience. Conectados empowers education by providing students the skills and motivation to pursue higher education and open new possibilities for their lives. It reaches outside the school walls and connects communities to knowledge that improves their local businesses and agriculture.

Wasiymi Wasiki partners with the school community to install the internet-equipped computer lab, assists parents in taking responsibility for the ongoing costs of the internet, and forms a parent-teacher committee as the lab’s caretaker. Together, they recruit a full-time computer instructor and reach out to volunteers. They lead complementary programs that use technology to examine social issues like nutrition, gender, and self-esteem. And outside school hours, the space becomes a community learning center and public internet access point.
Volunteers design and lead sessions that bring to light exciting new classroom methods made possible through computers. History or science class becomes an internet-wide scavenger hunt. Instead of trying to present one static lesson that engages 20 students, kids personalize their learning and find the information that interests them. Students can teach each other with their own PowerPoint presentations.

Conectados benefitted over 750 Peruvian students in 2010 and will reach 150 new incoming students per year. The average frequency of internet use has tripled, while the total cost has been reduced more than fourfold to US$1.75/month for unlimited access. A third location opened in November 2010 and Wasiymi Wasiki expects to bring Conectados to four new schools each year.