Atticus Finch, a fictional character in the widely acclaimed novel To Kill a Mockingbird, once said, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view – until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
The “Amigos de las Americas” international youth program offers students this opportunity, allowing students across the United States to travel to various Latin American countries to have an immersive experience in which they can live with a conventional family in a country very different from their own.
Taylor Martin, the regional outreach manager for Amigos, has worked with 13 of the 25 chapters across the west coast and says that Amigos has many different programs that they are looking forward to this year.
“Each year we refine our program opportunities and focus in each country to provide a program that is not only impactful on the participant, but also sustainable for the community,” Martin said. “In the Dominican Republic this summer our 4 week project will focus on Sports and Leadership. This is a new focus and our participants will start a sports league then travel with their team to compete and collaborate with other communities.”
Gabby Bernas, an Amigos volunteer, explained the purpose and structure of the program.
“Amigos de las Americas is a nonprofit organization that trains high school students to travel abroad to a Latin American country,” Bernas said. “While in the country, participants engage in cultural exchange, lead a community-based project, and facilitate educational summer camps for the youth.”
These volunteer projects includes helping with sports and community leadership, improving biodiversity in the environment, providing environmental stability, improving community health and many more.
According to the Amigos program’s website, the program has been running for 53 years and has had bold impacts on young people across the country.
They also have over 28,000 alumni and 97 percent of them reported having a positive experience.
Senior Kiran Misner decided to join the Amigos program because of the unique firsthand experience which helps build leadership and individuality.
“I decided to do Amigos because it is a program unlike any other,” Misner said. “There is an immersion into a community and culture where you are not just an outsider looking in.”
The Amigos program gives students the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, or Panamá and Martin says each program
“Each country project holds a different experience for each young adult looking for a chance to get out of their element for the summer,” Martin said.
The program’s varied time frames allow volunteers such as Bernas to better plan their summer schedules.
“I went to Nicaragua for seven weeks, mainly because that fit with my schedule, the weather was nice, and I was interested in the country,” Bernas said.
Amigos currently has 12 summer programs for 2018 with some programs only lasting a couple of weeks, while other programs can last up to eight weeks.
Longer programs will have more time consuming projects volunteers will need to complete while shorter programs will be smaller and quicker.
Many volunteers have described their experience as life-changing and many returned back to the country they originally visited as part of Amigos.
Junior Will Wagman volunteered for the Amigos program and visited Nicaragua in his trip and was able to learn a lot more about the Hispanic communities.
“Amigos pushed me out of my comfort zone,” Wagman said. “I built strong relationships with local youth and community members.”
Wagman was also able to collaborate with and get to know volunteers from across the country by helping kids in the local community.
“Not only do you get to contribute to a Latin American community, but you get to also immerse yourself in the culture,” Wagman said. “You can improve your Spanish-speaking skills and for those who need more of an incentive, you get community service hours for the completion of this program.”
Misner chose to travel to Madriz, Nicaragua, and had a moving experience while living with his host family.
“My experience was awesome and it was one of the best summers I have ever had,” Misner said. “I did not expect how quickly I would assimilate into my community but everyone is so welcoming.”
Bernas described her trip as amazing and said that her Spanish skills, leadership skills, and confidence grew immensely.
“I met people that I never thought I’d meet before,” Bernas said. “I was also able to develop a really close relationship with my host family and community that I did not think I would be able to obtain.”
The Amigos high school program requires students to be 16 years of age by the end of their participation year and they must have studied Spanish for at least two years.
The program fee for students is around $6,000; however, students often fund-raise to cut the cost by selling products such as citrus, coffee, and chocolate.
In addition, the program is willing to offer financial aid to those who cannot afford the price.
“Amigos wants to give every individual the chance to do the program and therefore they have financial aid for those who need it,” Wagman said.
Students must also go through an application process which consists of fundraising and training to be enrolled in the program.
Students are given the option of either meeting once every week with board directors to complete the training, or they complete the training by attending a four-day workshop, where they learn all the material in a short amount of time.
Misner encourages all students enrolled in a Spanish course at Palo Alto High School to consider joining Amigos and had advice for those who were considering volunteering.
“For those who plan on or want to do Amigos, the most important thing you need is an open attitude,” Misner said. “There will be challenges that you face, but the reward is so worth it and you will get to do things you never imagined.”
Bernas also offered advice for those who have already decided to join the program.
“I would just say to get out of your comfort zone,” Bernas said. “It’s okay to risk partaking in an activity like this and you’ll meet others that are just like yourselves.”
Although the program starts in the summer, volunteers must apply early if they would like the opportunity to join the program, as the application deadline for volunteers is Dec. 10.