Leigh is from Connecticut. She is studying Spanish and Education in college. Leigh volunteered abroad through World Endeavors at an orphanage in Costa Rica.
How was your experience in Costa Rica?
It was an amazing experience! I was able to learn a lot about myself and how I was able to get out of my comfort zone. I did not have a lot of prior experience with children, at least not to this degree. When I was younger, I had done some babysitting, but I had never changed a diaper before! I gained a better idea on how to manage a child. My domestic abilities improved and I realized how hard it is to raise a child. I told my mom “I now really understand what you did for me”. It was a great growing experience.
What was a typical day like at your project?
I volunteered with an orphanage for neglected and abused children. I started my day at 8:00 in the morning. The first week I was there, I was the only volunteer. There were 11 girls and 1 boy who was 7 months old in the house I was in. I spent my time helping out however I could. I would help out with snack time and take time out to play with the girls. It surprised me that imaginative play didn’t seem to be there as much as it is in the United States. It made me more observant in a new culture, looking for differences.
What was a favorite thing about your volunteer placement? The most challenging?
My favorite thing was spending time and playing with the girls, and getting to know their personalities. My Spanish really improved, as did my quick thinking skills.
My biggest challenge was finding the best way to communicate, dealing with the fights and temper tantrums. I found it hard at first to discipline the children. It is hard enough to interact and get through to a child in English, let alone in another language. It was a challenge to learn how to effectively help the children deal with their temper tantrums.
What were your first impressions of Costa Rica?
I had traveled abroad before, to Mexico and the Dominican Republic, but only on vacation and as tourist. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got to Costa Rica. When I first got off the plane, I was nervous and excited.
By the time I left Costa Rica, it felt very bittersweet. I missed my friends and family at home a lot but I knew I would miss Costa Rica a lot too. I didn’t want to leave, but my host mom told me that I would always have a home in Costa Rica.
Why did you choose to volunteer in Costa Rica with World Endeavors?
I had always wanted to experience Latin American countries. No classroom can teach you to really speak a language; learning all the nouns and adjectives isn’t enough. Unless you immerse yourself into the culture, you can’t get the same knowledge. After a little research I knew that I wanted to travel abroad to not only improve my Spanish but to help the people in that country. I had always volunteered locally and thought there was no better combination than to improve my language skills while volunteering my time.
After searching online for different volunteer programs, I noticed most organizations had strict dates and many did not have programs during the winter break which was when I could go. World Endeavors allows you to go at a convenient time for you. Staying with a host family was also a big appeal of this program. It was a perfect fit for what I needed, and my mom approved of it. World Endeavors was able to answer all of my questions and everyone was very helpful in getting what I was looking for.
Did you find any challenges with the language barrier?
My host dad mumbled a lot, which was actually like being with my own dad because he does that too! But everyone spoke quickly and used slang. Communication was sometimes difficult between my family and me regardless of how much Spanish I knew. You are thrown in there and it can be challenging, but my Spanish improved so much!
How was living with a host family?
I think that the best way to learn a culture is to live it. I was so immersed that after just two weeks I felt like I lived there. I had a volunteer project, a house, friends, and my own little life there. My host family was friendly and always included me in their lives. They owned property nearby, so one day I went and picked fresh fruit with them and helped my host dad fix the fence. I even got to meet my host mom’s parents.
On my first night in town, I was taken to one of their many winter holiday festivals. I felt like a part of it instead of just observing it. It is an adjustment to become a part of another family but it’s what you make it. I feel that if I would not have gotten the same experience if I would have stayed at volunteer housing or something like that. I wouldn’t want to stay with a bunch of Americans who may not be that interested in volunteering. It is about the volunteer work.
What did you do in your free time?
I was usually exhausted after working at the orphanage and especially when I had Spanish classes. I mainly spent my evenings with my family, having dinner, hanging out. Sometimes we would go out for ice cream, or poke around stores. I did a little bit of everything. My first weekend, my host sister took me out and we visited with one of her friends in town. I was so glad to be placed in a small town, and I got to see typical workers instead of those at a tourist resort. I wasn’t treated differently in my town, whereas in a tourist location, they treated me differently. After about two weeks I felt like a local.
What was a typical meal in Costa Rica? What were your favorite/least favorite foods?
Well, I am a vegetarian, so my typical meal consisted of rice, beans and fried eggs. I never really liked beans before, but I loved it! My host mom was such a good cook and she fed me a lot. She never made anything I didn’t like! When we went out to eat, I never wanted to go to the tourist restaurants because the food at home was so good! I miss my host mom’s cooking.
How has your time in Costa Rica impacted your life at home?
While I haven’t worked with children since I’ve been back, I feel more capable of working with children. I was able to not only manage children, but in another language. Before I went to Costa Rica, I took a proficiency exam with two parts: a written section and an oral section. I passed the written but not the oral. When I got back and took the exam again, I passed the oral section!
My aunt’s husband is Colombian, and I had always felt too embarrassed to try my Spanish with him. But now I talk with him all the time in just Spanish at family functions because I am much more confident!
What advice would you give to someone volunteering abroad?
Have an open mind and be willing to try. Do not feel above anything, you are not just there to play with the kids. The workers at the orphanage work 24/7 doing everything. You need to go and do whatever is needed. If the dishes are dirty, do the dishes. Just get in there.
You are only there for a short time, so put home in the back of your mind. Enjoy just being; be in the moment because you can’t go back.
Number one story you love to tell about your time abroad:
I was helping a little boy tie his shoes and he asked me, “Why are you so white?” I didn’t know what to say except that I wasn’t from there! I guess kids really do say the darnedest things!
Did your experience in Costa Rica teach you anything about yourself?
My interest and curiosity have expanded to learn not just in a textbook. I am more open to trying new things and to taking myself out of my comfort zone. I have learned to enjoy where I am, when I am there. I also learned to appreciate my friends and my family and realize that most differences aren’t that different. People are the same; there are the same personalities regardless of culture. Kids still cry, kids still fight. It’s all the same.