Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal
In her early days as a student at St. Pius X High School, Micaela Varela was zeroed in on her future, dead set on being an orthodontist.
But that was before she joined the Amigos de las Américas program and spent the summer she was 16 in Panama, helping villagers lay tile in a chapel, and the next summer in the Dominican Republic, helping install light posts in a small town.
Now, Varela, 20, is majoring in peace and justice at Regis University in Denver, her dreams of dentistry a thing of the past.
“Because of Amigos, I would like to go into community development or international development,” she said recently during a send-off party for this year’s Albuquerque contingent of Amigos volunteers.
Twenty-one Albuquerque-area high school students will work this summer in countries including Nicaragua, Paraguay, Panama, Mexico, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic in programs that range in duration from four to nine weeks. The students are from Albuquerque High, Cibola, Cottonwood Classical, La Cueva, St. Pius X, Rio Rancho High, East Mountain High and others. Some have already departed. All will have embarked by the end of the month.
Born out of a Houston youth minister’s recruitment of 285 young people in 1965 to combat a polio epidemic in rural Honduras, Amigos – celebrating its 50th anniversary this year – has evolved into a program that sends volunteers, ages 16 to 25, to more than a dozen Central and South American countries. In most cases, they live with host families who have no indoor plumbing and little electricity and who do not speak English. They work on sanitation and environmental projects, education workshops, programs that emphasize sports and creative expression, activities aimed at younger children and community-based initiatives – such as that tile job Varela worked on in Panama.
The chapel she helped tile is not only a place for prayer but also the community center of a village that is home to about 100 families.
“When I went there, I was going to help those people, and it was not that way at all,” Varela, of Corrales, said. “That’s not the attitude you should go in with.”
She said the people in that Panama village taught her as much as – or more than – she helped them.
“They were so welcoming,” she said. “They would invite you into their house and give you a meal. These were people who did not even know you and might be struggling to feed themselves.”
That’s the way Amigos is supposed to work. The young American volunteers help plan, fund and complete projects. In return, they gain confidence, learn leadership skills, become more proficient in the Spanish language and broaden their horizons. They are exposed to cross-cultural experiences that might be the most valuable lessons of their lives.
Varela laughs about introducing her Panamanian hosts to s’mores as part of a fundraising drive for the tiling job.
“They thought it was kind of weird,” she said. “They would pull off the burned marshmallow.”
The Albuquerque chapter of Amigos was founded in March 1970. The chapter went dormant in the early 1980s, but it was revived in 1992 when young people in Albuquerque expressed interest. This year, the program costs about $7,000 per student, expenses paid for by a combination of chapter fundraising and fees contributed by parents.
Last summer, Calvin Good, 17, of Bosque High School worked on an Amigos project in a village of 300 people in the mountains of Peru. Just getting to and from that village was an adventure. Good will not soon forget the wild bus rides on mountain roads.
But he will also not forget the people he met there or the work he did – leveling out a soccer field, raising money to establish a physical education program and hire a P.E. teacher, getting the local youths involved in sports tournaments.
Good said that when he went to Peru, he was shy and his Spanish was weak. That changed. Anyone who saw him at the Amigos send-off party knows he is no longer shy. He’s outgoing and amicable, comfortable even in the company of strangers.
“And I started speaking Spanish with much more confidence,” he said.
Before joining Amigos and going to Peru, Good had participated in a school-exchange program in Mexico City aimed at improving his Spanish. But he said the Mexican students at the school he attended had been speaking English since they were very young and were able to help him – perhaps a little too much – when his Spanish faltered.
“I only made baby steps in my Spanish in Mexico,” he said. “But Amigos was like being pushed off a cliff. It was learn Spanish and get on to bigger things.”
Good isn’t done with Amigos yet. He is doing a program in Paraguay this summer. Because of situations specific to his project last year in Peru, Good did not get to share as much time as he would have liked with a host family. He hopes to do more of that in Paraguay.
“I hear the country is very beautiful and the people are very friendly,” he said. “I long for that family experience.”
Eli Reeves, 16, of Albuquerque Academy; Connor Arndell, 17, also of Academy; and Georgia Gray, 16, of Bosque School, are members of this year’s group. Each is a mix of excited anticipation and measured apprehension.
Arndell is bound for Panama. He is a seasoned traveler, having visited countries such as Nepal, Thailand, Mexico, Nicaragua and Costa Rica with his family. But this will be the first time he has been out of the country on his own. And for a six-week stretch, at that.
“I’m a little bit nervous, but I’m not too afraid,” he said. “My Spanish is pretty good. The region I’m going to – Azuero – is hilly, and it’s just coming off its rainy season, so it’s green. It looks really nice.”
Gray, who was inspired to join Amigos by a neighbor’s experience, is going to Nicaragua. She enjoys studying languages and hopes to work on projects that promote creativity and children’s rights.
Reeves, who aspires to some kind of career in international affairs, will do an eight-week stint in the Dominican Republic. He selected that country because of its hot climate. He said his sister, Abbie, was an Amigos volunteer in Ecuador, at an elevation of 12,000-plus feet, and was really cold.
“During the summer, I like hot,” he said. No worries, then.
“Well, I’m afraid of all the mosquito-borne diseases,” he said.
Amigos veteran Varela would advise Amigos rookies to just let the positive adrenaline take hold. She doesn’t recall any fears before her trips to Panama and the Dominican Republic.
“I was just so excited, so happy to get out and do something I had never done before,” she said.
Something that changed her life.