Student and Volunteer Blogs

Elaine Lo, Healthcare Volunteer, 11 June – 12 July, 2010:

After volunteering in Africa for two years and getting ready to start graduate school in public health, La Mariposa offered me a well-rounded experience to learn Spanish and volunteer at a local health center. Learning Spanish with my own private teachers was a rewarding experience as I got to know the members of the community personally and discuss about their community’s
health issues and needs. Because I was one of the few volunteers who were placed in a healthcare setting, Paulette and her interns weren’t sure how successful my placement would be. Health placements are often hard if you are not there for an extensive amount of time (say, more than a year) or do not have the technical background as a doctor, nurse, or other health
professional, like myself. Additionally, having an above average Spanish background is almost necessary to make a bigger impact.

Since I had neither the time, the technical background, nor the language proficiency, I mostly observed and developed my own project. The health center’s director indicated a need for addressing Dengue Fever during a time of Dengue outbreak, but I noticed the health staff had few materials and didn’t provide education regarding Dengue at the health center and in the
communities. After observing the nurse and the community health technicians – from sitting in the office to inspecting the pulperias for expired food to educating health volunteers about malaria – I got a bit restless sitting around and not being able to communicate well, so I decided to form my own project. With a background in preventive health education, I decided that I
would create some straightforward posters regarding Dengue’s symptoms and the ways of preventing Dengue in the residents’ homes. I thought this was also a way for me to practice my Spanish and apply my education at best. Since my artistic skill was a hopeless cause, I asked a few of the locals – a teacher’s graphic designing sister and my homestay brother – to help me
create the posters. They both designed beautiful and unique posters. Two hang proudly at the health center; the other two are at one of the primary schools I hope (where a volunteer would supposedly educate the students about Dengue!). I also delivered education talks a few times at the health center. Though I was happy with the results, I also felt that I could have done more
with better Spanish and more technical skills.

Regardless, I felt this was a great prelude into graduate school. I learned so much firsthand from shadowing the health workers and practicing my Spanish with them. It was tough, because they didn’t go easy on me with the Spanish but they did everything they could to teach me about health. From talking to La Mariposa’s teachers and the health staff, I learned about the benefits
and the flaws of Nicaragua’s healthcare system. The hours I spent in the community helped me to understand Nicaragua’s health issues and needs, such as doctors’ negligence, lack of accountability in health delivery, and lack of resources, among other things.

The only shortcoming as a volunteer was not having enough time for myself to travel and explore the little nuggets of Nicaragua, though that was more my fault than anyone else’s. As a volunteer by morn and student by afternoon, I didn’t have the time to join the other non-volunteers for the afternoon excursions and traveled exclusively on the weekends.

Overall, I had a great experience as a volunteer! I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to become part of a community and practice their Spanish. Though I recommend volunteering for La Mariposa’s established placements in schools and farms, those who are interested in applying their health skills in the health centers won’t be disappointed. But keep
in mind that the more time you have, the better your Spanish is, and the more skills you have, the greater your experience will probably be. The unpredictable environment like the health center’s requires one to be flexible, patient, and adaptable. You may not like some of the staff you’re working with and you may be shuffled around to different staff, like I was. But in the end, you pretty much have to define what your role will be and what you want to do. And you probably will gain more from them than they will from you, as sad as that might be. I’d also tell any prospective health volunteers that you keep an open mind when going into the health centers that these are resource-poor institutions and may not have the same standard as health institutions in the USA, and that we as Westerners may not always know what’s best for them. Buena suerte!

Tamar Joy, English Conversation Teacher, 17 June – 21 July, 2010:

I taught English to a group of young people (ages 12–17) from the community. The students were really motivated to learn English. Most of them took English in school and many of them had taken additional classes before so they had some basic conversational skills. The major challenges were dealing with a mixed level group, inconsistent attendance and the fact that it was such a short term assignment. If future volunteers find themselves in a similar situation, I would recommend teaching the class with one or two other volunteers….you can start out together as a class going over the theme/vocabulary/grammar for the day. When it comes time to practice in pairs or small groups, split the group (based on level) with other volunteers. I found that when I kept them all together to practice, the lower level students tended to just stay quiet and let the others speak. Dividing them up by level (or even by personality…giving shy students a space to feel comfortable) is helpful. I don’t think there is much that can be done about inconsistent attendance…it would be nice if the same group showed up day after day so you could build on information from previous classes. However, that just isn’t the reality…there are so many other issues….taking care of siblings, illness, the rain….and also the fact that the class is free and they know it is temporary. No one is going to be 100% invested in something when they have a bunch of other things going on in their lives and this is viewed as just an “extra” opportunity. I think it is important for future volunteers to understand this and not get upset with students for not showing up sometimes…don’t take it personally. It isn’t about you.
I’m a teacher at home and always come to my classes super prepared with a lesson plan, materials and a bunch of other resources. The classes I teach cost a lot and most of my students are studying English full time. I show up and expect them to be there…and they are. When teaching in a totally different context, I realized I had to get rid of these expectations. I took each day as it came. No matter what, the most important thing is to frame the classes around things the students will encounter…interactions with tourists on the bus, meeting new students/volunteers at La Mariposa, building vocabulary/skills for talking on the phone/internet. In the end, the class was fun..sometimes there were 3 students, sometimes 10…I worked with whoever was there…sometimes on what I had planned and sometimes something different. I always had a plan but I abandoned it if necessary and went with something else…even if it was just talking to the students, asking questions, letting them ask me questions..and they always had questions!

Britney Regterink, Organic Farm, 2 February – 15 April, 2010:

Working on the farm was a truly wonderful experience. I got plenty of exercise, I watched things grow, passed time in the sweet Nicaraguan sunshine and in the shade of the mango tree, helped to build a shelter, helped to plough with oxen and spent time with some truly spectacular people.

Most of my time was spent watering and weeding, which wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that has ever gardened or farmed before. The watering is done by hand with watering cans (really tones those arm muscles ☺). Weeding is also done by hand because the farm functions without the use of herbicides.

Working on the farm can be slightly difficult, being that the sun shines almost every day and the bike ride to the farm from the hotel is about 15 minutes. And then there is all that watering a weeding. But it is a truly rewarding experience, watching things grow and eating the things that you helped to produce.

Franklin the farmer is great company, he is kind, patient and very bright, a wealth of knowledge, especially in the sector of organic farming. He is more than willing to talk about just about anything – in Spanish, of course. He speaks slowly and clearly and is more than willing to write things down if one doesn’t understand. Therefore, if you need to practice your Spanish in a non-intimidating environment and would like some good, hard, honest work—the farm is the place for you!

Sukru Seckin, Primary Education, Rincon de Cuentos, 9 January – 8 April, 2010:

This is Sukru (El Turco) from Turkey. I spent one of the most wonderful three months of my life in Nicaragua. the purpose of my visit was to learn Spanish, but La Mariposa Spanish School opened a new window for me by suggesting volunteer work for the community where they are located. So that’s how I decided to do volunteer work. When I came I didnt know what I was going to do but Paulette put me in the reading programme in Santiago after a week of orientation period. It was a house called ”Cuentos Para Ninos” (”Stories for Children”) where kids can come and read stories, hear stories from me and Janeth, borrow story books or play with us different games.

The thing I saw was when kids get more attention, they learn faster. If someone appreciate them, they exist. If you listen them, they talk (even though I didn’t understand Spanish in my first two weeks, I listened to their dreams) i always ask ”what can be more dangerous than a silent kid?” We made them talk or express themselves without fear… What did Turkey or a Turkish man would mean before they met me? Gringo? Chele? NO. they accepted me and always respected me during my work. They always called me Checu:) If you accept them and appreciate them, they will always be waiting for you with the most beautiful smile and shouting your name from 200mtrs away as soon as they see you. I think everybody knows it is such a great feeling to be loved.

I was very sad when the time came to leave. That’s the only thing I can blame Paulette about my volunteer work that it was really really hard for me to say goodbye to those kids.:( Edgar, Engel, Jason, Heysel, Diana1, Diana2, Jonathan, Carlos, Miguel, Magdaly, Ramon, Catarina, Adriana…- I love you all.

By the way I learned Spanish as well:)) I am a tour guide in Turkey and I did my first Spanish tour:). My guests could not believe that I could learn my Spanish in three months. I think that explains how good the school was.

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