Outreach360 Caminos Volunteer Intern Guest Writer: Sarah Allen
When I first traveled to the Dominican Republic as an English teacher for underserved students with Outreach360 in 2012, I learned a principle by which the organization lives: Serve, Don’t Help. Volunteers often go to developing countries with the mindset of helping the helpless. But since that first trip, I have returned four more times to the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua, and I now realize that development work is not one-sided. Empowering societies through cooperation, support, and mutual exchange is crucial to lasting development. Service is a two-way relationship that involves mutual communication, respect, and learning.
As a Caminos Intern with Outreach360, for everything that you give to the students and the community, you will gain even more. Personally, I owe the entire path of my life to that first week I volunteered at Outreach360: my interest in Latin American culture, my commitment to teaching and learning languages, my devotion to education, my passion for service, and my decision to pursue a career in international humanitarian work. If you are even half as lucky as me, you will gain so much from your time as a Caminos Intern with Outreach360: you will learn from like-minded peers, gain critical leadership skills, form meaningful relationships with students, soak up a new culture, open doors for your future, and even pick up some Spanish along the way.
Every returned Outreach360 volunteer will probably tell you that working with the students was the highlight of their experience. For me, it was no different. But working with the students was also by far the most challenging aspect of volunteering for me. During my first trip to the Dominican Republic, I spent every single day of the week teaching color words to a group of about eight kindergarten-aged students who had had very minimal exposure to English. Each day, it seemed like the students had completely lost all of the progress they had made the day before. Because of the total immersion approach that Outreach360 takes to teaching English, I felt like it was difficult to communicate and connect with such basic level students.
As the end of the week approached, I worried that our team had not accomplished the main goal that we had set for ourselves: facilitating mastery of eight basic color words. Feeling hopeless on the last day, our team gave the students coloring pages and crayons in a half-hearted attempt to do an activity that was relevant to the theme but still simple enough that we couldn’t fail.
To our surprise, as the students colored, we began to hear them ask each other for the crayons that they wanted. “Blue, please,” I heard from one student as he looked towards another student’s pile of crayons. “Red,” another student called as she gestured towards a crayon just out of reach in the center of the table. For the rest of the day, we encouraged students to ask their peers and teachers for the crayons they wanted for their coloring pages to practice their color words. Unlike we had thought all along, the students were making incremental progress all week, poco a poco. Despite my initial frustration of slow progress, I know that each successive week that Outreach360’s dedicated teachers have worked with those students, they have built upon what I taught that week.
At the end of the last day, every single one of my students ran up and gave me a huge hug, and that is what has kept me and hundreds of other volunteers returning year after year to continue to see them grow. Despite the language barrier I perceived, I was able to form a real connection with my students that I strengthen with each visit.
I have loved learning from Outreach360’s joyful and loving students, but the opportunity to forge lifelong friendships with fellow volunteers and staff has also been a hallmark of my experience as a volunteer. Outreach360 attracts all of the coolest world travelers, adventurers, and do-gooders. Through interactions with like-minded people from near and far, you will not only bond over your similarities, but you will gain new perspectives and a multicultural outlook from your differences.
Throughout your time in Nicaragua or the Dominican Republic, you will certainly encounter cultural differences you are unaccustomed to. But Outreach360 will be there to support you every step of the way and help you conquer any challenges you may face. By the time you return home, you will miss the gallo pinto you ate every day, the daily rounds of La Prensa’s loudspeaker, and even the bunk beds and mosquito nets.
All that you gain from your time as a Caminos Intern with Outreach360 will be invaluable within the context of any career or life path you may choose to pursue. I know I will carry the knowledge and experiences I have acquired in Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic with me through the rest of my life.
Not only that, but you will also open doors for your students that will allow them to contribute to the healing of their communities. Like I said, the “Serve; Don’t Help” principle has stuck with me and served me as a guiding principle since my first trip to Latin America. I hope that you choose to spend a few months of your time as a Caminos Intern because I guarantee that your time with Outreach360 will stick with you too.