Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

Lessons Learned 

Volunteering in San Pedro, Paraguay with Amigos de las Americas

Volunteering to build a fogón
The author building a fogón while volunteering in Paraguay.

As my Paraguayan host mother passed me a guampa of hot mate early one morning, three weeks into my 5-week project, I thought, “The materials will never arrive.” My two partners and I were assigned to a rural Guaraní community in San Pedro, Paraguay, where indoor ground fires were the traditional cooking method. Because homes have no ventilation system, soot stalactites hang from the tin roofs and smoke permeates every part of the home, causing respiratory diseases and other serious health problems. Our project was to construct fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves, called fogones, for ten local families.

We were trained to build the stoves using 450 bricks, an oven box, a metal stovetop, wire, and mezcla made of the red Paraguayan dirt and water. AMIGOS provided most of these materials, and the families agreed to prepare the location, and provide the mezcla and basic tools.

During the first days, my partners and I prepared the community for the arrival of the materials that we expected to arrive that weekend. We gave charlas on the health benefits of fogones, and we created a schedule chart showing which day we would build a fogón for each family over the next five weeks. However, that weekend the materials did not arrive. Nor did they arrive the following week, nor the week after that. I briefly lost faith in what I was doing. I was far from home, having accepted many donations to support this fogón project, and was worried that I would never be able to present tangible results.

Remembering AMIGOS' Three Pillars

Then I remembered my training about the AMIGOS program’s three pillars: youth leadership, multicultural understanding, and community development. As I accepted the fact the community development project might never materialize, I turned to the remaining two pillars for inspiration. I began pouring my energy into leading various projects with the local youth group, and becoming part of our community’s culture. I participated in everything from planting onions with my host dad on his chakra to cooking Paraguayan food with the women and girls of my town. My partners and I held many meetings with the town’s youth and we organized twice-weekly soccer games where we sold refreshments. Funds raised were designated for future development projects and to help pay for transportation when community members needed to go to the city for medical care.

Making Friendship Bracelets

A project that I had started in the beginning of my stay, making friendship bracelets with teens and children, turned into a mini-enterprise through which the youth group was able to raise significant funds. More than that, community members of all ages became took an interest and became involved in making and selling the bracelets. It was the most beautiful thing to see even my host dad and the school principal wearing bracelets. It was a simple symbol of how the community members, and us American volunteers, had all become woven together.

Materials Arrive for the Fogón

During our final week in Paraguay, the fogón materials finally arrived, and our initial preparation and planning fell into place. We completed five stoves in five days, working dawn to dusk, a feat that was possible only because of the help we received from community members. We also planted 50 tiny trees. The time we spent interacting with community members in the previous weeks had strengthened their interest in the success of the fogón project. We knew the last five stoves would be built and the remaining trees would be planted after we left, making this a truly sustainable and community-based project.

The amount of interest and respect that my partners and I showed for the people and the culture of our community allowed us to have the fullest possible AMIGOS experience. I believe we had a lasting impact on our community, though nothing could possibly equal the positive impact our community had on us. I learned the value of planning and preparation, but most importantly, the value of patience and the power of human bonds.

Amy Afonso volunteered with Amigos de las Americas in Paraguay from July-August 2008.   

Related Topics
Teen Volunteering Abroad

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