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East Students Travel With AMIGOS Despite Risks and Rigorous Preparation

The young students are being rowdy and they’re not paying attention to your health lesson. What do you do?

Junior Madi Lage has been given this practice scenario, and is attempting to problem solve it with her group of fellow volunteers. She is at a training meeting for AMIGOS, a non-profit organization that allows students to volunteer in Latin America to help communities.

“AMIGOS’ purpose is to show first world kids in America what third world countries are like,” Lage said. “And to show how other people are living.”

For 6-8 weeks, the students live with native families in the community they are working in. They stay in their host home, usually along with multiple “siblings” who are the children of the host parents, for the entirety of their stay in town.

Junior Cecilia Kurlbaum is also currently training for her first trip with AMIGOS.

“I first heard about [AMIGOS] freshman year in Spanish 2,” Kurlbaum said. “Every year they come in and [past AMIGOS volunteers] talk about it and they try and get you to do it.”

The project’s participants spend months preparing and training for their extensive trip. Starting at the beginning of the school year, they go to meetings almost every Sunday for three hours.

Consisting of constant lessons of what to do when you arrive at your country, the meetings can seem boring, according to Lage, but they are meant to inform the participants of every precaution they should take while in the country. The training also helps the students understand how to care for rambunctious kids that they will be teaching during their stay.

For senior Claire Maclachlan, the sizable training turned out to be a blessing when she arrived in her community of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. While at first she disregarded the meetings as insignificant, Maclachlan admitted that because of the tedious training, she knew exactly what she was doing while working in her country.

“I really hated the meetings the first time around, I didn’t give it a high priority,” Maclachlan said. “But I used a lot of the cultural sensitivity [we learned] to adjust to the new culture.”

While in their assigned country, the students work on their community based initiative (CBI), which is the project that they work with their community to develop. While in the mountains of Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic, junior Dara O’Connor worked on teaching the locals about clean water. Depending on where the student goes, the project changes to fit what the community needs.

“We will work with the community to help them learn how to continue these projects on their own,” Lage said. “I hope it helps me get closer with the community, that’s why I’m doing AMIGOS, so I can learn about their culture.

Through AMIGOS, teens can experience these different cultures while helping families in the community. The non-profit organization focuses on teaching locals, especially kids, about health and the importance of education. Volunteers will spend time in classrooms with the local kids, teaching them important values that they will carry with them when the teens leave.

With up to eight weeks in a different country, and speaking a different language, Kurlbaum is nervous about not understanding anyone.

“Everyone speaks Spanish there,” Kurlbaum said. “I’m afraid that I won’t be able to follow anything they say.”

Often the volunteer is the only one that speaks English in the community. And since the requirement for the trip is to have only completed Spanish 2, it causes most to pour over their Spanish books before their plane takes off, but not O’Connor. She learned that immersing herself in the language was the way to learn it.

“I didn’t speak very much Spanish before my trip,” O’Connor said. “but you just need to converse every chance that you get while you’re there.”

Speaking a whole new language isn’t the only tribulation the volunteers have to deal with. Participants have trouble handling what most Latin American citizens eat, their digestive system usually can’t handle the bacteria in the food and water, so the students will have to be careful when eating or drinking anything while in their country.

“We have to use purifying tablets before we drink our water,” Lage said. “We also have to purify it before eating food made with water.”

Even with these drawbacks, 16 students from the Kansas City Area have decided to join the AMIGOS program and travel to Latin America, and many veterans of the organization are grateful for the lessons they learned while away. Maclachlan learned how to give the community a beneficial addition to their town, without doing it all for them. O’Connor became very attached to her host family, so much so that they still have her picture hanging on their log walls.

“I think we really close ourselves off to other cultures and what’s going on around the world,” Kurlbaum said. “If you can go out and experience another culture firsthand it just makes you stop and think.”

Students who have done the AMIGOS program continue to talk to Spanish classes about the benefits of being a volunteer in Latin America.

“AMIGOS really focuses on the community doing things to help themselves,” Maclachlan said. “Your goal as a volunteer is not to help these people, it’s to facilitate them.”

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Taylor Bell

Taylor Bell is a senior at East. This is her second year on staff and her first year as a staff photographer. Along with The Harbinger, she is on the swim team and gymnastics team. Read Full »

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