“WHAT DID YOU DO THIS SUMMER?”

By Caroline Bybee, Project Supervisor – Paraguay
August 14, 2013

My summer job was not like most. I was not scooping ice cream, or interning for some big-wig company, or life-guarding at a summer camp. I wasn’t even in the United States. Since June, I have been in Paraguay, working as a Project Supervisor for the non-profit organization, Amigos de las Américas, also known as AMIGOS.
I’m almost hesitant to even attempt to describe it, for fear of sounding trite or contrived. This experience has been unlike any other, and I worry that I will never find the words to describe it accurately. At best, I can try, while disclaiming that however I do attempt to portray it will not even begin to do it justice.

With that in mind, let me explain what I was doing here a little bit. As I said, I’m a Project Supervisor, also known as a supervisor, supervisora, P-sup, or just sup. I’ve been working for AMIGOS, which is a non-profit that sends U.S. American youth to live and work in communities in Latin America on community development and youth leadership projects. I myself was a volunteer for the organization twice, most recently in 2011, when I volunteered in Paraguay for eight weeks. I was thrilled to come back as a supervisor, and even more ecstatic to be returning to my beloved Paraguay.

Throughout the course of the summer, I have fallen even more in love with this red mud country. As a volunteer, I became close with my community and made life-long relationships that I still maintain to this day. As a supervisor, I have made even more friendships that I hope to continue for years to come, and I have also had a chance to really get to know more of the country.

With the increased responsibility of the supervisor role comes increased independence, and I have been greatly enjoying the opportunity to wander our staff city, or ride in the back of a truck with a community contact, or chat strangers up on the bus. I eat a lot of chipa and drink a lot of Cola, and I count taxi drivers and city employees among my circle of friends. I regularly burn my tongue on mate – a popular tea-like drink – and have so much red mud caked on my hiking boots that I don’t think they’ll ever be the same again. I joke with five year olds and bus drivers, and I can convert Guaranis to dollars in a matter of seconds.

All of these small, quotidian events make up my experience, combining to form an incredible summer that regularly made me pause in awe at the amazing opportunity that I have in this job. Of course, that all sounds a little grandiose, so maybe I should just cut to the chase and explain what my job actually entailed.

As a supervisor (or supervisora, as I’ve grown accustomed to being called), I made up part of an eight-person staff team on the ground in Guairá, Paraguay, which is our project area. Each AMIGOS project is made up of senior staff (a project director, associate project director, and senior project supervisor) and supervisors, all of who work together to care for their volunteers and host communities. On our project, there were 37 volunteers and five supervisors, with each of us taking responsibility for three-to-four communities, and thus six-to-eight volunteers. I personally was responsible for a group of four communities (known as a route), in which there were eight volunteers, two per community. My responsibilities included assuring the safety and security of my volunteers, encouraging their personal growth, maintaining community contacts, overseeing the implementation of a community based initiative by the volunteers and their communities, and overall just making sure that things are going smoothly for each community and its volunteers.

In order to do these things, I spent Monday through Friday visiting my volunteers in community. I stayed one night in each community, walking around with my volunteers, checking in with their host families, and filling out forms to ensure that everything is going well, or to address any problems that might have arisen. This was also the time in which I got to enjoy watching my volunteers grow, as I sat in on their educational activities, or watched them perform Paraguayan polka. I saw them solve problems as they arose, and gently nudged them in the right direction when they needed it. I spent long, leisurely hours drinking mate with them and their host families or their community contacts, sometimes discussing project details, but sometimes just talking about anything, be it the local education system or an upcoming party.

This cultural exchange – intercambio multicultural – is a guiding principle for AMIGOS. As an organization, AMIGOS strives to empower youth leaders across the Americas through cross-cultural experiences, and participating in this exchange and observing the resultant youth leadership is probably the best part of my job. Whether it’s one of my volunteers who finally broke out of his or her shell to chat up a new community member or a local youth who steps up and takes charge on a project, I loved seeing the growth and personal change that AMIGOS can help to kindle in a person.

And speaking of growth and personal change, volunteers and local youth aren’t the only ones who benefit from AMIGOS. As a supervisor, I feel that I have grown and changed substantially in the last two months, even more so than when I was a volunteer.

When you are an AMIGOS volunteer, you are pushed to your limit, faced with challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable. In the end, though, you pull through, with the help of some perseverance, personal drive, and the support of your partner, supervisor, and community. When you’re a supervisor, you’re pushed to your limit and beyond, with the burden of responsibility growing exponentially as soon as you don your black AMIGOS polo for the first time. Sure, you have support – your senior staff is always there for you, and your partner agency and community contacts take just as good of care of you as your own family might. But in the end, you’re expected to rise to the occasion, figure it out, and solve whatever problems may arise.

It’s an exhilarating experience – and a scary one. Sometimes, I got back to our staff city on the weekends and had to take a moment (or several) to gather myself, evaluate the past week, and prepare for the next. Occasionally, I had to just take a few hours off, wander the city, buy a tiny bottle of Coke and not let myself think about work for a solid chunk of time. Because it was hard work, and there was a lot of it.

In the end, though, I always came back to this sense of wonder, this love for what I’m doing. It’s the moments when I got to watch a baby take some of her first steps, right into one of my volunteer’s arms, or when a host mom jokes with me that she can tell that I’m going to return to Paraguay by the way I talk. It’s the secret handshake with my favorite taxi driver and the street vendor who greets me every time I pass his shop. It’s the four AM bus rides when I joke with bus drivers and shake strangers’ hands, and the late night Guaraní lessons when my friends and I would laugh at my complete inability to pronounce nasal vowels. It’s all of the incredible people whom I have met, all of the wonderful friendships that I never could have fathomed finding before I got here.

Paraguay got to me, and in the best way possible. This summer has been more than I could have ever expected, and I feel like I will never be able to articulate the way this experience, this country, and these people make me feel. The best I can do is to say rohayhu, Paraguay. Thank you for an unforgettable, life-changing two months. I will never forget you and ajuta jey!

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My route – eight awesome volunteers and one nutty supervisora!

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The staff team with our incredible neighbors, who were basically our very own host family!