When the Teacher Becomes the Student: Life Lessons through International Volunteering
By Natalie Andrews
There are experiences that teach us. There are moments that seem to alter the passage of time. Then there are experiences powerful enough to change one's perspective forever. The experience of international
volunteering achieved all of these things for me -- and more.
I worked in Brazil on a volunteer placement through i-to-i, an award-winning volunteer travel organization. i-to-i helps disadvantaged communities and ecosystems around the world by sending trained volunteers to selected projects.
"Venice of Brazil"
For two weeks, I taught at a community center just outside of the city of Recife. Recife is the capital city of the state of Pernambuco. The city has numerous waterways and bridges and is therefore often referred to as the "Venice of Brazil" . It was built as a port city along tropical, white-sand beaches lined with palm trees. The coast of Recife is lined with coral reefs; hence the name "Recife" (Reef).
Recife is one of the typical fast-growing urban areas in Brazil, yet it has retained much of its heritage and original purpose. Fisherman can still be seen along the coast, skillfully maneuvering jangadas, a unique form of sail boat, and the city remains an exporting center for the expanding agricultural and ranch areas in the hinterlands.
It was only a taste of life in Brazil, but it was enough to allow me to see the world in a completely different light. Going as a tourist cannot compare to giving back to our global community through service. i-to-i also offers one-week programs, so even people with limited vacation time can participate.
Teaching Social Skills
The classes I taught were designed to provide my students with social and lingual job skills. We worked on simple English terms such as names and family titles, descriptions of people, likes, and dislikes. By the end of each lesson, the students always demonstrated what kind of people they were. Every one of them was mature, adaptable, and happy regardless of circumstance.
Most of the time, though, the roles were reversed. I was the student, learning lessons of generosity, love, and sincerity from those I had come to teach. On the second day of class, one student – Nadiele --
realized that the teachers had nowhere to eat their lunches. She invited us to her home. Before we got there, she used her Portuguese/English dictionary to explain to us that her house was “simple.”
The house was simple by our standards. It was nearly bare, with cinderblock walls, a half-kitchen, and two bedrooms containing mattresses on the floors. Nadiele’s father was a policeman, and her family of five was not poor by local standards. This was how the middle class lived outside the cities of Brazil.
A Day in the Life
BUZZZZZZZ!!! My alarm went off at 6:45 a.m. every morning, often
excited to greet the day than I was, since I am not a morning person! It
was okay though, a cold shower quickly woke me up. After a week or so, I
decided that Brazil and I would never agree on our definitions of "hot
Besides, I sigh and roll out of the pink cotton sheets, Adriana, my
homestay "mom" would serve a delicious hot breakfast at 7:00 a.m., and
something I didn't want to be late for!
Walking out of my bedroom and into the dining room was always
Though I knew it would be delicious, I never knew what was going to be
table. I came prepared with my Portuguese/English dictionary so that I
find out. Adriana's English was good, but her vocabulary was small. My
Portuguese was horrid so the dictionary got good use.
The best thing I did before I came was to decide to forget that I
picky eater and consciously decided to try everything placed in front of
It served me well-though it was completely different than anything I'd
eaten before, I loved almost everything I tried.
After breakfast, I met up with the other girls in my project-they
staying in the hotel. We would chase after the city bus, waving our
until it stopped for the "gringas." The ride to the community center in
where our project was, took about an hour; we used the time to finish
It didn't matter when we arrived, we were always late-even though
early in the morning, and the students were on break from school-our
always waiting for us. The center was their hangout-from dawn to dusk.
the teenager I had been and those I knew from back home, they never
Teaching was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I
warmed up to it though, and while I was still nervous, the lessons
okay. The TEFL course helped a ton, but our class was full of total beginners, so everything we did was very simple. It was hard to keep them motivated-after all, they were teenagers learning simple phrases and numbers.
Learning with Games
Our secret became games. Rowdy games, if possible. One day we broke three chairs
learning colors. Other days, we played their favorite
could hardly breathe I was running and laughing at the same time.
The students loved to laugh and be goofy, most days ended in
over the silliest things. After the morning lesson, the students-mostly
girls-loved to sit around and talk with us. Everything they knew about
outside world was through the television and they asked us the craziest
questions. Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys surprisingly still
loyal following in Brazil.
The language barrier posed a potential problem, and my dictionary
received great use in these "chatting" moments as we would painstakingly
up each word. Sometimes when I'd start to say something, I would end up
giggling and couldn't finish, as I laughed at my own struggling in
my thoughts into a mix of Portuguese, English and mimics.
If we had an afternoon lesson, a girl named Nadiele loved to take us
her house for the break. Her sisters and her were some of the best
speakers in the class and often became our translators when we needed to
know something from the center director. The first time we walked to
house, she used the dictionary to explain to us that it was "simple."
was true by material standards, but not in what matters; the house was
of love. They were a tightly-knit family-the first thing they showed us
box of photographs of their family, going over each one and using the
dictionary to explain all of the details.
Rice, Beans and Love
Their mother loved to prepare huge lunches for us-we could never get
the Brazilian way of having lunch as the big meal instead of dinner. The
meal was always accompanied by an assortment of freshly squeezed
local fruits that I'd never heard of, goiaba, maracuja, guarana, etc. It
was humbling to watch them give us everything they had and host us. The
were so generous and so mature. When we tried to guess Nadiele's age, I
thought atleast 22 years. However, she was younger than me, 18, engaged
married, and more grown up than I think I will be at 22. They had all
experienced so much more in such a short time than I will ever know.
When lessons were done for the day, we would all walk to the bus
together, and while we had arrived into Toto just fine, Nadiele or one
her sisters would always find someone on our bus and tell them to make
got off on our stop. They lovingly called us "gringas" and didn't want
get lost. It was possible, Recife is gigantic, with a population stretching into 3 million-so we were
they watched out for us.
The constant translation and slow talking was more exhausting than
running a marathon. After one lesson we needed a nap; after two lesson
a major recovery and would never get back together before dinner. I had
clue what Recife's nightlife was like before I came, but I soon
discovered that the sights and sounds of the city only got better after
dark. Tuesdays were Terca Negra nights, full of "reggae" (aka Bob
capoiera, and funky music. We struggled to learn the right dance moves
Wednesdays were always Forro nights at a little club in Olinda.
dancing was fun, very different than the Western moves I am used to, but
exciting to learn and do. The music was incredible and Forro night was
definitely my favorite. The rest of the week was spent dancing and
It was incredible to get to know a completely different culture by day
by night. We lived like queens, our money went so much farther in
good thing because the nice restaurants wouldn't make us sick, as the
ones would, and all of us were experiencing some sort of bad digestion.
Showered with Affection
But Nadiele was wrong too. There was nothing “simple” about the love and joy that filled the house. Her two sisters ran to greet us “gringas.” They made us fresh fruit juices, showering us with excitement and affection. I had learned the most important lesson, and it is now engraved on my heart. Happiness is not about possessions or circumstance. It is 110 percent internal.
I learned this valuable lesson again while visiting a favela, or shantytown, named Rubbish Dump. The town was named for its location -- fifty yards from the city dump. The residents of Rubbish Dump live off
the land by sorting through the trash and searching for recyclable items that can be redeemed for cash.
I walked down a muddy hill towards Rubbish Dump, when a cute three-year-old girl with dark bouncing curls ran towards me. The girl, Luciana, gave me a huge hug. I took her hand and we walked together we
stepped over puddles that smelled of urine and rotten fruit.
Luciana giggled delightedly during my visit. She didn’t mind that her house was made from cardboard and sheet metal. Her future as a career recycler did not bother her. She and her friends and family, young and
old, worked hard and slept on cardboard. And yet they smiled and welcomed me with contentment, not despair.
Brazil's Best Carnival
On my first day with i-to-i, during the program orientation, the project coordinator explained that as long as the people of Recife had work to do and something to eat, they had reason to party. Recife is one of the poorest areas of Brazil but is famous for having the best Carnival. My visits to Recife and Rubbish Dump taught me to live by example by seeking happiness within.
I joined an i-to-i venture after a family vacation to Mexico introduced me to poverty, which reminded me of the television ads I’d seen for aid organizations. i-to-i helps communities to become self-reliant, not aid-reliant. Aid organizations had learned over the years to create sustainable projects instead of just giving random money. Volunteer placements with i-to-i are not free, however, and I was helped by some wonderful businesses and incredibly generous people in my home county. There are tips on fundraising on the i to i website. Fees go to support the projects, the safety of volunteers, preparation, and placement.
If you are interested in volunteering abroad, I recommend it without reservation. Most importantly, remember to keep an open mind. The lessons you learn may surprise you.
For accommodation options, find unique Brazil hotels and interesting tours in Brazil.
i-to-i is an international travel organization offering volunteer vacations, specializing in helping disadvantaged communities and ecosystems around the world. i-to-i is also an accredited TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course provider and has trained more than 15,000 people over the past 10 years.
i-to-i offers hundreds of placements in teaching, conservation, community work, building and a variety of other projects in more than 20 countries. To date, the company has brought nearly 10,000 volunteers
together in projects around the world. Volunteer travel allows people to visit a foreign country, volunteer at a worthwhile project, immerse themselves in a new culture and come home having learned more about
themselves. For more information about upcoming volunteer vacation opportunities, visit www.i-to-i.com
or call (800) 985-4864.
i-to-i is an accredited TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course provider and has trained more than 15,000 people over the past 10 years. With a certificate earned through i-to-i, teachers can live
abroad while they earn money teaching English in classrooms around the globe. TEFL is an internationally recognized professional qualification, certifying those that have little or no experience teaching English. For more information, visit www.onlinetefl.com or call (800) 985-4864
Many of the organizations with which i-to-i works are extremely under-resourced; therefore, i-to-i created the ‘The Helping Hand Foundation’ to provide direct financial assistance to the most disadvantaged among these organizations. Established as a separate entity, it is a registered not-for-profit charitable foundation. A portion of every volunteer travel placement fee goes into the foundation. Partner organizations are invited to submit applications for funding and donations are made biannually.
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