From the moment I climbed out of the pickup truck that deposited me in Soloy, a town where I would be a volunteer English teacher in Panama’s Comarca, it became clear that no one knew why I was there. It was like I was the centre of a prank and not one soul had the heart to clue me in on the joke. My questions were dodged; communication was indirect.
Of course, I noticed a number of red flags before arrival—all of which I chose to ignore.
Reading between the lines
First, my lengthy cover letter and resume were answered with a simple, “We’d love to have you. Let me know when you arrive to Panama.”
So strange, I’d thought; what a brief response. I asked about the other volunteers: Who would I be working with? And received no reply. The organization seemed less than legitimate, but since there were no crazy start-up fees, I went anyway. I wanted to see Panama. I wanted to find a service opportunity that wouldn’t charge me thousands of dollars to participate. I hoped to gain more teaching experience. I was curious and I wanted to offer my time.
I’d come to Soloy to volunteer with a community organization’s English program. But upon arrival, I realized that any projects I’d planned to assist with—teaching, environmental protection, health centre resources—had washed away with a flood in 2008. I had arrived planning to jump into an English language program that no longer existed. I hadn’t anticipated the organization requiring rebuilding from the ground up.
Sure, the website was outdated. Since the content was written 15 years earlier, the construction of roads cut travel time from the nearest city from three hours down to less than two. Notes about phone signal found only on a few mountaintops proved incorrect. Many adults I met owned a Blackberry or other smartphone. Although major lifestyle components were left unchanged (homes without electricity, bathing in the river and no access to computers), the town was changing. It didn’t bother me that the information I’d read was old. But it did strike me as strange that the organization’s founder didn’t provide me with any updated information at all.
Seeking out teachers and organizers
With the founder largely absent (he was living nearly two hours outside of Soloy), a highly involved community member named Juan stepped in as my personal guia (guide) from the onset.
Juan was a godsend: responsive, punctual and committed to the people in his town. He introduced me to the teachers at the local primary school. At the time, there was one English teacher, a newly licensed educator tasked with teaching English to all seven classrooms—kindergarten through sixth grade—throughout the day. She worked with me to set up a routine, visiting the classes that she couldn’t make it to and offering hour-long English lessons to several classes every morning. A week later, the director (whom I never saw at the school once in six weeks) cut this teacher’s hours from five days a week to only two.
Upon arrival, I realized that any projects I’d planned to assist with—teaching, environmental protection, health centre resources—had washed away with a flood in 2008.
Come afternoon, I found myself with a new group of students. Juan was at it again, organizing the youth and setting up a hodgepodge of rocking chairs and benches in his co-worker’s living room. That first Monday afternoon, a group of 30, ranging in age from six to 36, crowded the makeshift classroom. This class constantly changed. Some days I’d find mostly teenagers, and the next, only five children, all siblings under the age of eight. It was impossible to design consecutive lesson plans where one day built upon another. As word of the class spread, the group shifted dramatically; a constant flow of new faces appearing while others simultaneously lost interest.
In the evenings, when the stars provided the only overhead lighting, I held a class for a small jovenes club of high school boys. We met in the church just down the dirt road from where I was staying. The door only opened with a strong shove, and dust coated the walls. But the moveable wooden pews allowed us to gather in a circle. And with flashlights pointed, students could read the white board tablero that I propped up in my lap.
In these three classes (all of their own style), I simplified my purpose. Whereas I’d originally hoped to teach past tense irregular verbs by the end of my time in town, I opted to ditch grammatical lists that my students would soon forget. Providing them with vocabulary and verb lists felt repetitive and un-engaging. Most households didn’t have a Spanish-English dictionary, and the kids couldn’t access Google Translate on a computer whenever they needed a quick answer.
Instead, I aimed to instil an interest in language learning in the students that I worked with. Within the first two weeks, “good afternoon's” fell from hilltops, and “hello's” made their way down the street, full speed. I hoped that the kids would keep a few of these phrases circulating. And one day, if the organization finds its footing, future volunteers can pick up where I left off.
Addressing a problem and proposing a project
From David City, I helped to design a new website. I didn’t want the interest in language learning to fall to the wayside, which was bound to happen if another full year passed before the next temporary teacher arrived. If they wanted a fresh stream of volunteers to pool in, I knew the old URL would have to go. I said I could do it, and the founder gave me complete creative control.
On Saturday mornings, I would take a bus to David and buckle down in an Internet café. Paying about 60 cents an hour, I sat in a dark corner all day long and then rushed to claim a seat on the last bus back to Soloy at 5 p.m. (Or, when I didn’t make it, I’d splurge on an overnight stay at Bambu Hostel for $11). My main goal in website development and content writing was simple; transparency. These Saturdays, I would Skype with another past volunteer, who offered me an ear to vent to and provided helpful critiques and feedback for the site. We wanted to let future volunteers know exactly what they were signing up for.
My teenaged students in particular were curious about this website. They wanted to learn how to design and operate a pagina web like I was doing. But because the site is targeted toward international volunteers—English speakers—I wrote all of the copy in English, using vocabulary and grammar I hadn’t yet introduced in class.
At a tourism meeting (to which the founder arrived late and without an agenda), I passed around a paper, amassing a long list of adults engrossed with the idea of a website seminar. I’d run WordPress tutorials before, guiding writers through the backend of my college magazine’s site. And I knew I could translate the guides to Spanish. But the technology for a proper tutorial just wasn’t there.
Microsoft Corporation Panama had donated computers and provided Internet access at a high school in Soloy beginning in 2003. But the program had since closed, and with it, the Internet connection had disappeared. I couldn’t imagine transporting this impromptu website class to David, requiring 20 people to find bus fares, ride two hours, and then crowd around a single computer in an Internet café. There simply wasn’t the space or the resources to pull it off in my limited time in town. I later regretted mentioning the idea.
Changing my mindset
With time, a community starts to reveal itself: open arms, wise minds, and big-hearted people waiting on opportunity to arise. But another feeling emerges; distrust, concealed with the phrase “internal problems.” No community or organization is without these challenges. Volunteers often encounter issues with communication and organizing; you have to first get to know the people you hope to serve.
Perhaps the first step toward addressing challenges is being honest with yourself and the people around you. Help them in ways that they want to be helped. My original plans weren’t going to come to fruition, and that’s okay.
Sometimes you have to pause, take a step back, and repurpose yourself. Think about the skills you have to offer, and ask someone you can trust to help you use them in a way that is needed. Change won’t be immediate. But once you arrive, you can connect with people and make yourself useful in more ways than one.Add this article to your reading list