All the months of training and preparation have finally drawn to a close. The funds are (mostly) raised, the inoculations against exotic diseases received and what’s left is largely anticipation about the experience of a lifetime.
“The excited part definitely outweighs the nervous part,” says Davis High junior Monica Leflore as she looks ahead to June 27 and her departure for the town of Jarabacoa in the Dominican Republic.
Traveling for the first time without her family, Laflore will spend six weeks living with a host family, providing a daily summer school program for young children and focusing on environmental awareness in the community.
There is much she still doesn’t know — like who her host family is or what their home is like, what kind of community service projects she’ll help with — and she won’t know any of that until she gets there.
But she knows this: Everyone she’s talked to who has volunteered with Amigos de las Americas has come away a better person for it.
“Everyone comes out of it with something,” Leflore said.
Which is why, every year, another dozen or so local teens like Leflore embark on an Amigos tour, spending a good portion of their summer vacation in South or Central America, focusing their time and energy on public health, education and environmental awareness.
This year, a dozen high school students from the Sacramento-Davis chapter of Amigos will be heading off to one of eight different countries for anywhere from six weeks to two months.
They will leave having been trained by the best sort of experts: their peers, who have done it all before and can tell them exactly what to expect.
Take Rebecca Rubin, for example. The Da Vinci High School senior has been on two Amigos tours, to both Peru and Paraguay in recent years.
Now she’s a trainer, and since fall, she’s been helping prepare the current crop of Amigos volunteers for their trips.
They’ve met monthly, frequently for overnight retreats, and talked about everything from how to work with young children to what to pack.
Rubin concedes it’s “a little sad” not to be heading off on a trip herself, but says she’s thoroughly enjoyed the training side of the program as well.
So, too, has her Da Vinci classmate Melecio Estrella.
Estrella traveled to Honduras with Amigos last summer and is living proof that what might start as a very tough experience can in just a few weeks’ time become the trip of a lifetime.
The first night with his host family, Estrella said after his return last year, “was probably the hardest of my life.”
He was placed with a very poor family in a Honduran village, in a house with dirt floors and surrounded by barbed wire.
“I remember in the beginning thinking, ‘Wow, six weeks … I don’t know how I’m going to make it,’ ” Estrella said. “And then just like that, the end was here and I didn’t want to leave.”
He even considered another Amigos tour this summer, but with college coming in the fall, he decided the time and expense were just too much. So instead, Estrella spent much of the past year preparing the new volunteers.
One of those new volunteers is Da Vinci sophomore Gabe Mager. Mager will be heading to the mountains of Ecuador — an elevation of 7,000 to 9,000 feet.
“It’s going to be very cold,” he said.
He will be helping with community health fairs, reforestation projects and much more, and is very excited about all of it.
“My dad was in the Peace Corps and he’s always talked about it. And I always wanted to do something like that, so this is my chance,” Mager said.
Like many of the Amigos volunteers, Mager is a product of the Spanish Immersion Program in Davis, so while his fluency likely will improve during the trip, language shouldn’t be too much of a barrier. Amigos volunteers are only required to have completed two years of Spanish, but most have more than that, said Tessa Artale, training director of the Sacramento-Davis chapter.
That’s particularly the case in Davis, she noted, with its strong foreign language program. Even students who don’t participate in Spanish Immersion usually start foreign language in seventh or eighth grade, so by the time they are sophmores or juniors, they have four or five years of Spanish or another language under their belts.
During an informal farewell ceremony in Davis over the weekend, Artale acknowledged each of the new volunteers, providing them with their departure packets, airline tickets, official Amigos shirts and words of encouragement.
“This is such a great group this year,” Artale said. “It’s kind of sad to see them go.”
Hopefully, she added, they will return to the program next year, to volunteer again or to serve as trainers for the new kids.
Participating in Amigos this year are: Laurel Darragh (Nicaragua), Sophia Davis (Panama), Adelia Fonseca (Dominican Republic), Jacob Frankel (Paraguay), Lydia Gegan (Mexico), Scott Gidding (Paraguay), Jasper Gilardi (Peru), Madeline Kelsch (Ecuador), Monica Leflore (Dominican Republic), Gabe Mager (Ecuador), Olivia Schmidt (Mexico) and Chloe Weinstock (Costa Rica).
—Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy