Brazil: Life Lessons through International Volunteering

A classroom in Recife, Brazil, where volunteers from i to i work.
A classroom in Recife, Brazil, where volunteers from i to i work.

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 much more 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 just decided that Brazil and I would never agree on our definitions of “hot shower.”

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 it was something I didn’t want to be late for!

Walking out of my bedroom and into the dining room was always interesting. Though I knew it would be delicious, I never knew what was going to be on the table. I came prepared with my Portuguese/English dictionary so that I could 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 was a picky eater and consciously decided to try everything placed in front of me. It served me well–though it was completely different than anything I’d ever eaten before, I loved almost everything I tried.

After breakfast, I met up with the other girls in my project, they were all

staying in the hotel. We would chase after the city bus, waving our arms until it stopped for the “gringas.” The ride to the community center in Toto, where our project was, took about an hour; we used the time to finish preparing our

It didn’t matter when we arrived, we were always late-even though it was early in the morning, and the students were on break from school-our class was always waiting for us. The center was their hangout-from dawn to dusk. Unlike the teenager I had been and those I knew from back home, they never
slept in.

Teaching was a lot more difficult than I thought it would be. I eventually warmed up to it though, and while I was still nervous, the lessons usually went 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 while learning colors. Other days, we played their favorite game-futebol-until I could hardly breathe I was running and laughing at the same time.

The students loved to laugh and be goofy, most days ended in hysterics over the silliest things. After the morning lesson, the students-mostly the girls-loved to sit around and talk with us. Everything they knew about the outside world was through the television and they asked us the craziest questions. Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys surprisingly still have a 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 look 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 organizing my thoughts into a mix of Portuguese, English and mimics.

If we had an afternoon lesson, a girl named Nadiele loved to take us back to her house for the break. Her sisters and her were some of the best English 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 Nadiele’s
house, she used the dictionary to explain to us that it was “simple.”

This was true by material standards, but not in what matters; the house was full of love. They were a tightly-knit family–the first thing they showed us was a 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 used to the Brazilian way of having lunch as the big meal instead of dinner. The meal was always accompanied by an assortment of freshly squeezed juice–all 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 girls were so generous and so mature.

When we tried to guess Nadiele’s age, I thought at least 22 years. However, she was younger than me, 18, engaged to be 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 stop together, and while we had arrived into Toto just fine, Nadiele or one of her sisters would always find someone on our bus and tell them to make sure we got off on our stop. They lovingly called us “gringas” and didn’t want us to get lost. It was possible, Recife is gigantic, with a population stretching into 3 million-so we were glad they watched out for us.

The constant translation and slow talking were more exhausting than running a marathon. After one lesson we needed a nap; after two lesson days we needed a major recovery and would never get back together before dinner./ I had no clue what Recife’s nightlife was like before I came, but I soon enthusiastically discovered that the sights and sounds of the city only got better after dark. Tuesdays were

I had no clue what Recife’s nightlife was like before I came, but I soon enthusiastically discovered that the sights and sounds of the city only got better after dark. Tuesdays were Terca Negra nights, full of “reggae” (aka Bob Marley), capoeira, and funky music. We struggled to learn the right dance moves but had fun anyway.

Forro Nights

Wednesdays were always Forro nights at a little club in Olinda. Forro 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 playing.

It was incredible to get to know a completely different culture by day and by night. We lived like queens, our money went so much farther in Brazil, a good thing because the nice restaurants wouldn’t make us sick, as the more dingy 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

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.


i-to-i North America
190 E. 9th Avenue #350
Denver CO 80203
(800) 985-4864

Keep your eyes open for i-to-i i-Discover info events!


The following two tabs change content below.
If you like the articles we publish, maybe you can be one of our writers too! Make travel plans, then write a story for us! Click here to read our writer's guidelines.