Traveling is the best gift one could ever give or receive. It makes memories that will last longer than a gift card or a new t-shirt. Needless to say, the vacation or experience makes much more of an impact when it changes your life in some way. What makes it the most rewarding experience though is when it not only touches your life, but those around you as well.
Growing up, I've always been interested in helping other people, and was constantly doing community service projects and going on mission trips. So when I heard about a volunteer project on a larger scale, I couldn't wait to begin. During the summer of 2010, I volunteered with Amigos de las Americas, in a rural community in Panama for 8 straight weeks. Starting the project, I didn't know a single person. Amigos de las Americas sends volunteers to countries without their fellow volunteers so they will be forced to reach out and encounter new teenagers from all over the United States. I also didn't know where I was going to be staying. The supervisors get to know you for 3 days while you adjust to a new country, and they then place you in a house with a preapproved family that fits your personality. They also grant you a partner or two, to stay and work in your community with you. I was lucky enough to not only receive an amazing partner, but the most incredible host family that exceeded my every expectation. There was a mother and father, with three siblings. From day one they all treated me with so much love, respect, and hospitality that I could not have imagined coming home.
Our project, decided by the community, was to build a park, paint the youth building, lay tile on the school counters, and paint the church tower. While facilitating all of this, we also taught every day for an hour in the school over environmental and health issues. It’s not easy to teach children when they learn in a language not natively yours. That's another part of Amigos. Since the program sends volunteers to Latin America, the volunteers must have a basic understanding in Spanish, because it's very unlikely that anyone will speak a word of English in your community. This is another reason why this experience helps shape so many teenagers into young adults. They go to a foreign country with a good attitude and lots of heart, ready to work, but not knowing what to expect. By the time they leave, they are completely shaped in a new direction. For me, it changed everything. I struggled to communicate at first. Yet everyone was willing to slow down their speech and help, which definitely helped me tremendously. Before the experience, I wouldn't say I was materialistic, but I don't believe I fully appreciated everything I had. Growing up in America, "new" is always perceived as better. Yet in Panama, they unknowingly taught me that this is not necessarily true. They are not wealthy people in terms of money. But they are rich in something much more important. They have character, family, and love. Coming home I realized that those are the most important things in life. This experience shaped not only my personal life, but my career aspirations also. Because of the program, I now wish to do humanitarian work, possibly for the state department. I’m extremely grateful that I decided to go on the trip, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
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