"Volunteering, and specifically through Lattitude, married my two passions – travelling and serving – perfectly. It meant that I got to see more of our incredible world, expand my horizons, experience something completely different, but also have a purpose and a reason for doing so" - Natasha, Ecuador
What made me volunteer in the first place?
Growing up I was privileged to have the opportunity to travel with my parents, and various other school groups. This taste of the world, and all of the amazing cultures, peoples, and natural beauties it holds, instilled in me a passion for travelling and exploring. Going into my final year of school I was a dedicated academic that valued my education and had every intention of furthering my studies at university, but I knew that for that next part of my life to be productive I needed a new experience; I needed to expand my horizons and challenge my view of the world. I had always loved serving, and volunteering in my community and in my school. I loved the feeling of selfless giving, and seeing the difference it makes in people’s lives. Volunteering, and specifically through Lattitude, married my two passions – travelling and serving – perfectly. It meant that I got to see more of our incredible world, expand my horizons, experience something completely different, but also have a purpose and a reason for doing so.
South America is a continent filled with diversity and culture. You can go from the desert, to the snowy mountains, to the jungle in a day. I was intrigued about this small, and mostly little-known country nestled amongst it all, whilst giving the perfect opportunity to explore more of South America. The language – Spanish – was definitely a deciding factor in my choice. In our world today, and moving forward, having a second language under your belt is incredibly beneficial, if not essential. I hadn’t learnt Spanish before, and I knew it would be difficult, however, it was a challenge worth tackling. I also loved the living arrangement that is unique to the Ecuadorian placements. I had had experience with homestays in Tonga and China before, and I knew that this was a unique and special way of immersing myself into a different culture, and finding out what it is like to be part of an Ecuadorian family – not just a foreign volunteer.
My placement and my role
During my five months volunteering in Ecuador I worked and lived in a city called Cuenca, in the southern part of the country in the Andes. Here I had two placements. My first placement was at San Jose de Calasanz, a school for disabled adults and children. I absolutely adored this placement and all it entailed! At first I split my time between helping younger children in the computer lab with academic games, and the rest of my time was spent in the art room. For the more secondary to senior students’ classes were directed at teaching them practical skills. Using these skills, they made products that were then sold to fund the school and the students’ education. This was a privilege to be a part of. Even though I didn’t, and still don’t, rate myself as an artist, I can’t even begin to explain the joy of giving from outside of your known strengths. In the painting room I worked with majority down syndrome guys, that had me smiling and laughing the entire time, and I created an awesome bond with my overseeing teacher. On Wednesday mornings I was lucky enough to spend time working in the school’s little bakery. This was another unknown talent of mine which I was excited to get into. After we’d made and baked the bread, myself, a teacher, and a few of the students would go out and sell it.
My second placement was at Centro Aurora an after school care programme for kids from troubled or poorer homes. Here my role was to help mostly the younger students, around 5 years old, with their homework. Then we would take them to the park, play games, and serve them meals. Whilst they may have been troubled these children were absolute gems – however, it’s always the cute ones that are crazy! Each week we would also take an English class with the older students. This definitely embedded in me a deep respect for teaching staff. Highly rewarding, but difficult at times!
At both of my placements I worked with a fellow Kiwi volunteer. It was an amazing opportunity to make a lifelong friend, and to see some else grow and struggle through the same experiences. There were also 8 other volunteers from NZ and Europe in my city, which meant that we had an awesome bunch of like-minded people to go exploring with on the weekends.
My host family
I felt very privileged to have been able to experience Ecuador from the inside. I lived with a beautiful host family who embraced me as another daughter. They were supportive and caring through the trials, and helped me to see the beauty in every experience. I had a younger host sister, a mum, dad, and a host brother who was volunteering in England with Lattitude at the time. It is a special thing to feel as though you are an integrated part of a different culture rather than just a foreigner passing by, and that’s what living with a host family offered me. I love my Ecuadorian family with all my heart, and I know we will keep in contact. I still talk to them, and my host brother is kind enough to let me talk to him in Spanish so that I can keep practicing.
I adored my work, but a highlight for me was travelling for two months afterwards with a Scottish volunteer. For two months we back packed our way through Peru, Bolivia and a bit of Chile. Along the way we saw incredible sights, such as Machu Picchu, Salar de Uyuni – the world’s largest salt flats, we went in the Amazon jungle, hiked snowy mountain peaks in the Andes, and I even managed to get out to the famous Galapagos Islands. This was an amazing opportunity where we had to learn how to budget, survive on tomato sandwiches, tackle South American buses, sleep in pretty grim, but exciting places, and learn all the savvy tips for travelling.
As well as having the most incredible, eye-opening experience, I also learnt a lot about myself. I went over to Ecuador with set expectations of what it was going to be and feel like. Within the first 2 weeks of volunteering I had these expectations flipped right upside down. I learnt the value in small deeds, that volunteering and helping other people wasn’t all about the big and miraculous, but more importantly about all of the hugs, the smiles and the words that sow seeds of change. I also learnt to be more tolerant with myself. Learning a new language, especially when you are thrown right in the deep end, is scary and hard, but I learnt to have courage and not be scared to make mistakes, yet to forgive myself when I did. I learnt that things don’t always come easy, because the things that are worth anything need to be fought for. The experience further embedded in me my passion for justice, and for the people of this glorious world. It opened my eyes to a different way of life, and the people to whom that is the norm. I came out of my volunteering experience, more ignited in my passions, humbler, yet more courageous, and with my horizons broadened further than I could ever image.
What I am doing now
Currently, I am studying Law and BA in Politics and Spanish at Otago Univeristy, Dunedin. Although I was an academic at school, I know for a fact that if I had come to university straight out of school I would have hated it, not because of university, but because I would not have been ready. My year away have cemented in my heart the reasons and purposes behind what I want to study. It has broadened my horizons by giving me a new language, with which I will hopefully study abroad during my years at university. I am absolutely loving University life here in Otago, and I owe that entirely to my year away. I feel that so many students come to university never having been challenged, never having to ask themselves “who am I?” and “what do I stand for?”. My year away taught me more about myself, and who I want to become more than any other experience in my life, and I am so grateful for that opportunity that Lattitude gave me, and gives to other youth like me.