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In Their Own Words

How Teen and Pre-Teen Volunteering Abroad Develops Global Citizens

Adults have written eloquently about why teens should travel and the importance of service to others. Volumes have been written about volunteer vacations (I’ve written plenty on the topic myself). Less often do we have the opportunity to hear from youth participants themselves about their experiences. I turned to two former international volunteers, Mette Rousseau, 23, and Zach Angerthal, 12, to find out what they had to say.

Mette participated on a service trip to Guatemala with Rotary International when she was a high school junior. Her group comprised five students, three members of the local Rotary club, and two trip leaders.

“Our group of ten partnered with Hands For Peacemaking in Barillas, Huehuetenango, Guatemala. Our destination was the incredibly rural community of Nuevo Santiago Esperanza Maya, a few hours deeper into the mountains. We piled into the back of a pick-up truck and knocked back and forth on steep, rocky dirt trails. The project plans we spent months preparing and only days executing were (1) building a pig house, (2) planting a ‘Life Garden,’ and (3) educating and installing water filtration buckets in each household."
Teen volunteering in Guatemala on ride.
Loading up to ride into rural Guatemala. Photo © Mette Rousseau.
To build the pig house we mixed cement on the ground with hoes and shovels, and passed buckets full down an assembly line staggered on a steep bank. The house came together beautifully crafted by men equipped with a few machetes, shovels, and one old chainsaw.

Preparing the land for the Life Garden was tiring work, but everyone had a part in the process. Children pulled sticks and rocks from the soil, grandmothers staked out rows, and everyone dropped seeds in carefully planned sections. It was an incredible transformation from bushes and tree stumps to rich soil hand-plowed into neat rows. Weeks later we received a picture of harvested crops piled high on blue tarps.

After teaching the handful of village leaders about the water bucket filtration system, we divided into groups and walked the steep trails to homes scattered about. Welcomed into the humble homes, the village leader with each group would explain to the family how to properly use and care for their water filtration bucket, as well as the many health benefits for using the buckets. Mothers were impressed with the ability of this simple system to clean their water and keep their children from getting sick, something all too common for them. “

The volunteer selection and preparation included a lengthy application process, weekly trainings, and more than 80 hours of volunteer work before even departing the U.S. As important as the preparation was the long-term commitment that Rotary and its partner Hands for Peacemaking have made to the community. “They continued with the projects we began, but also added multiple others such as clean stoves, fruit gardens, and health and education programs,” says Mette. “The long term partnering has been most impactful, and I am thankful that I was able to have a short part in it. The experience allowed me to be a part of a community bigger than what I could see from my front door.  I remember most the smiles, and laughs, and way the children warmed my heart. Maybe they remember the American pop songs, or silly handshakes, and mad skills at basketball we happily shared with them.”
Mette Rouseau volunteering with community members of Nuevo Esperanza Santiago Maya.
Mette Rousseau and her team with community members of Nuevo Esperanza Santiago Maya. Photo © Mette Rousseau.

Mette was left with more than just memories.

If it weren’t for this experience, my university studies would have been drastically different. I attended Seattle Pacific University and, greatly influenced by my trip to Guatemala in 2009, I decided to study abroad for a quarter in Guatemala studying Spanish, traveling to every corner of the country I could reach and embracing the culture I was living in. My university degree is in Global Development Studies, Spanish and Geopolitics.”

The highlight of the trip was that it marked the beginning of a passion and direction for Mette’s future. What was the low?

The shortness of the trip. We only had a quick ten day taste of the country, and only four days in the community completing projects.”

Like Mette, Zach Angerthal wishes he could have spent more time volunteering.

Zach was just 11 when he participated on his first international service trip. Together with his mother, sister, three other students and a couple more parents, Zach spent a week in El Salvador on a volunteer vacation with Glasswing International, an organization that integrates community involvement, philanthropy and corporate responsibility in its efforts to support marginalized communities.

Glasswing volunteer team of teens with a community in El Salvador at the dedication of a school renovation.
The Glasswing team poses with community members for the dedication of the school renovation. Photo © Kris Angerthal.
“It was a five day trip where we had three days of work where we painted and refurnished/renovated a school and then a clinic in need of help. Also, we had two days of free time for ourselves where we could hang out and do whatever we wanted.

One high for me was that we were involved with helping schools, which if I were to do a voluntour, this would be the exact topic I would choose. I like focusing on helping kids' education in a way that I don't have to actually be their teacher. A low thing for me was that we had TWO whole days of free time. I like hanging out and doing my own thing, but if I'm supposed to be volunteering, than I've got to do that. Maybe the organization could have cut down the vacation days to just one.”

Teen Zach volunteers to paint wall of local school.
Zach paints the wall of the local school. Photo © Kris Angerthal.

Zach and his family were stationed in Ecuador for the past two years, and Zach has continued to volunteer with disadvantaged children locally. Like Mette, Zach has been inspired by these experiences, and recently told his mother that he would like to lead voluntours when he grows up.

“I felt that the voluntour was a huge success and it made me feel proud of myself for helping other kids that are more in need than I am rather than helping myself. I think that the people I helped gained knowledge and learned more things, and I also think that people got healthier because we patched up the small, local medical center that is now well-known and more people go to it.

I also felt that I made a great relationship with almost all of the people there and I got to get to know them better. I also think that the kids I helped gained a small friendship because we became friends, but only for one day.

I learned that I should not care about myself a lot and start caring for other people. In my regular day life, I think I'm usually nice and helpful to others, but voluntours ALWAYS make me feel more helpful and caring. Another thing I learned was that the harder I try, the faster something gets done and the more efficient it gets done. What I would like to do next, like right now, is to start volunteering at more places so that not only will it make me feel better, but I will also become more well-rounded and more respected by others.”

Both Zach and Mette have valuable advice to share. When asked how international volunteering can be improved, Zach responded with “better organization.” Mette answered by putting the responsibility back on the volunteer. “Books have been written about the loaded question ‘How can volunteering overseas be improved?’ but I think the most impactful things an individual can do are (1) understand development and aid, as well as a history for the particular region and people they are visiting, and (2) take a deep breath and dive in.”

Volunteer Opportunities in Central America

Check out these options in Guatemala and Honduras.

For additional articles on teen voluntourism and program options across the globe visit teen organizations.

Author Amy E. Robertson.

Amy E. Robertson has written many articles for as Connected Traveler Contributing Editor.

She is the author of numerous publications for Moon Handbooks.
Her writing has been published on NPR, Vice MUNCHIES, Budget Travel, Delta Sky, National Geographic Traveler, Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor and Travel + Leisure, among others.

Amy has lived in six countries and traveled in more than 60.

Her volunteer experiences include building houses in Washington State and Honduras, monitoring presidential elections in Ecuador, working with youth on social documentaries in Bolivia, and serving lunch at soup kitchens in Seattle and Beirut.

Amy has a background in international development and nonprofit management and has worked in both the private and nonprofit sectors.

Related Topics
Teen Study, Travel, and Volunteering
Teen Volunteer Abroad Programs

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