What we had done to merit such a greeting? For those of us Americans and Europeans who had a standard of living equal to what this woman could barely imagine, it didn't seem like much. Members of a volunteer group from a language school, we had built a low-tech stove that allowed her to burn fuel — used beverage containers on the day we were there, sticks carried from kilometers away on more fortunate days — twice as efficiently. This one small project would make her life more manageable in ways that we foreigners wouldn't understand.
But we could understand her appreciation. Such gratitude is just one of the rewards of volunteer service. And for those who are learning Spanish or want to use the language skills they already have, such volunteerism is an ideal way to spend a vacation or longer period of time. Volunteer for service in Latin America or elsewhere, and your work will make a difference in people's lives. Furthermore, you will come to see your destination in a way that most travelers are unable to.
I also remember a few years later traveling to Baja California in northwestern Mexico with a church youth group, which contributed time to several projects at a large orphanage. Calling it an orphanage is somewhat of a misnomer, for not only did it take care of children, it offered a clinic, classes and other services, primarily to migrant farmworkers living in the region. Again, although my accommodations were far less plush than they would have been on even a tight-budget vacation, the time spent was rewarding.
During travels in Latin America, I have met numerous people who were there to give rather than to merely enjoy themselves. They've included volunteer home construction workers for Habitat for Humanity, human-rights advocates, Peace Corps workers, missionaries, medical personnel, and high school students on short-term projects. Without exception, they've told me that their time spent in service was both challenging and satisfying.
Interested in volunteering? If so, check out some of the opportunities available through the Volunteer directory. Whether you spend a week or a year helping others, you won't regret offering whatever service you can.