Hi there! My name is Ben, and I was an AMIGOS participant four years ago in the province of Azuay in southern Ecuador. I thought I would write a bit reflecting on my experience as a volunteer, as well as moving up the leadership ladder with AMIGOS, since I have now had a bit of time to process it and see how it has come to impact my personality, my goals, and my life tremendously.
I was initially a bit frustrated and scared when I arrived in my community, Chunazana, because I had been expecting the warm, immediately welcoming culture that other AMIGOS participants had described in their communities. However, after a while of feeling uncomfortable, I began to develop relationships with community members and foster a sense of trust that allowed me and my partners to experience a truly unique culture. I learned that colonization is an ongoing force, and that the pressure to assimilate is a real threat to Indigenous culture and language, which is why my community had been distrusting of foreigners entering their space. By focusing on forming relationships and setting aside my expectations of a “warm” host community, I was able to meet people who trusted me enough to let me learn more about their culture and gain knowledge that is unique and special. I am very grateful to my community, and I am glad that I, as a 17-year-old, was able to demonstrate a degree of cultural sensitivity that has served me well.
My specific service project, also known as my Community Based Initiative (CBI), involved revitalizing the community center at the heart of Chunazana. My partners and I consulted the leaders of the town extensively, as well as our friends and host families, to figure out how we could best support the community with the funds we received from AMIGOS. After much deliberation, they decided that the community center could use a fresh coat of paint, so we formed a team of community members to oversee the project and met often to work out the logistics. In Kichwa communities, everyone in the community comes together every so often to participate in a minga to collectively complete tasks in the town, such as digging irrigation systems or installing the roof of the town church. Our town leaders helped us coordinate our project as part of a larger minga, which lasted a full day and involved the entire community. It was exciting when the day of the minga finally came, because we were able to see the weeks of organization and preparation materialize into a project that benefitted our community and that my partners and I had helped facilitate.
My partners and I also facilitated talleres (workshops), also called campamentos, with the kids of our community every weekday, which we particularly enjoyed because they allowed us to have a lot of fun while also developing our leadership skills. Our workshops focused on different themes ranging from sustainability to public health to children’s rights, and they were filled with lots of games and singing and dancing. Facilitating talleres really makes the AMIGOS experience unique because it allows participants a large degree of independence and requires leadership skills, creativity, and confidence speaking Spanish.
My project lasted seven weeks, which is considered a longer project by AMIGOS standards, and gave me the chance to really connect with community members and form relationships. My partners and I were able to immerse ourselves in the local language and culture because we had a chance to adapt over the course of several weeks. Working on a longer project allows volunteers to complete a larger and more comprehensive CBI that involves more planning and effort, but can really benefit their communities. I am also grateful that I had the chance to get to know the kids in Chunazana better, because they were always so fun to be around and welcomed me and my partners into the community with open arms.
One of the aspects of AMIGOS that continues to impress me is its incredible network of people. My chapter, East Bay, helped me connect with wonderful people whom I still keep in touch with today. We had full-day trainings and overnight retreats every month, which let us form a close-knit community and really got us excited about departing for our different projects. If you choose to train with a chapter, the information you receive is invaluable and allows you to develop your leadership skills and confidence before even leaving the country. You get to fundraise together, which lets volunteers feel truly invested in their experiences and develops their confidence before having to fundraise in their communities. In country, the network of other volunteers and staff makes sure volunteers feel extremely supported at all times while still giving them the degree of freedom to take charge of their own experiences.
Leadership and Independence
The other aspect of AMIGOS that has stuck with me is the amount of independence and trust the organization bestows upon participants, who are most often only in high school. No other volunteer organization that I know of does such a fantastic job of giving teens a huge amount of freedom and responsibility. Volunteers get to collaborate with their communities to make sure that their projects truly benefit the community, allowing change to come from below and grow into something meaningful over the course of the summer. AMIGOS gives participants the chance to form meaningful relationships that transcend national borders, and I have such respect for AMIGOS for the amount of freedom I was given.
One of the key things I learned from my experience with AMIGOS is to never be afraid of change. After high school, I took a year off from school and lived in Norway, where I was backpacking, skiing, fishing, and overall challenging myself physically. I had been speaking Norwegian with my parents my whole life, but having to use the language and meet new people every day was frightening. However, my time in Ecuador taught me that it is okay to be disoriented and confused and to make mistakes, and my time in Norway was so formative to me because I was able to truly let go of my expectations and fears and focus on having the best time possible.
I now live and attend school in Montréal, where people speak both French and English, and am even picking up on some French without ever having taken a class. My university, McGill, is a huge school, but I have been successful in taking charge of my own degree, meeting with my professors and advisors on my own, and have managed to control my finances living in an apartment off campus. I attribute all of this to AMIGOS. I learned how to be independent through my volunteer experience and I am eternally grateful.
From Participant to Project Supervisor
I am continuing my journey with AMIGOS this summer as a Project Supervisor in Guairá, Paraguay, and could not be more thrilled. As an organization, AMIGOS is so incredible because it gives young people (like me) the opportunity to take charge of our own lives. I have learned so much and been given such incredible opportunities from my AMIGOS experience and cannot wait to support volunteers in becoming agents for social change and social justice.