To all prospective VDO volunteers,
I hope this brief reflection of my experience, as a VDO volunteer, will give you a greater feel for this remarkable program and worthwhile grassroots effort.
Knowing I would have a year off between university and law school I started researching volunteer programs in South America. I wanted a Peace Corps type of experience without the 2-year commitment. However, finding a program that met my criteria quickly proved to be more difficult then anticipated. By chance I stumbled upon the VDO website. The program was exactly what I wanted. Skeptical that this program was "too good to be true" I filled out an application. Two months later I was on my way to Ecuador.
VDO stands out among a plethora of volunteer organization for it's low participation fees, short-term commitment, and expedited application process. Aside from the exchange of a handful of emails with Gonzalo and Maria Teresa and a conversation with a former volunteer I had had little contact with the organization prior to my arrival. E-mail is by far the cheapest method of communication and therefore enables the directors of VDO to use their limited monetary resources more efficiently. This helps to keep the cost of participation in VDO low. But in no way is the limited initial contact indicative of their commitment to the program. Once in Ecuador I received plenty of support from the directors.
Excited and a bit nervous I followed the directions Gonzalo had provided me from Quito and found myself climbing 3 flights of stairs to the VDO office in Ambato. As soon as I arrived I was greeted with warm smiles, kisses on the check (Ecuador's traditional way of welcome) and very rapid Spanish. They explained the program and my assignments. I was overwhelmed but knew that these people would take care of me. They made it clear that if there was something I didn't feel comfortable such as my housing arrangement or school assignment things could be changed (this was never an issue). A few hours later my very large host family came to pick me up. My family seemed excited to have me and anxious to make me feel comfortable in their humble home.
Maria Teresa spent many hours with me my first week acquainting me with the area. She personally showed me how to get to my classes along the dirt or cobblestone footpaths and use the public buses. She also introduced me to the students and teachers at the 2 schools where I would be teaching. I had the opportunity to observe three other volunteers teach a class. And had plenty of time to ask the other volunteers how they planned their lessons and what kinds of teaching methods were successful.
I quickly learned that you were able to keep the students attention the best if you had games or worksheets for them. On Wednesday afternoons during our weekly trip to Ambato for our meeting I would make copies of wordsearches, crossword puzzles, bingo games, etc that I had created to pass out to my students the following week. I probably spent 2-4 hours a week preparing for my classes. There is a lot of material in the office to assist you in developing lesson plans.
My two months in Ecuador flew by. I was busy teaching English and arts and crafts at two different schools Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. Three Afternoons a week I coached four different girl's basketball teams which cumulated in a four-day tournament. On Wednesday's Maria Teresa, another volunteer and I visited different families who had children in the school. We conducted interviews with these families to discover the needs of the community and brainstormed ways in which VDO could help.
When I was not teaching or coaching I could be found helping with several painting projects that VDO had initiated at one of the schools, learning how to make empanadas with my family, having tea and practicing my Spanish with Maria Teresa and Gonzalo or hanging out with the other volunteers and watching the active volcano of Tunguragua smoke. Most weekends I would travel with the other volunteers throughout Ecuador. There are more then enough worthwhile places to visit close to Ambato and if possible I would strongly recommend staying on afterward to do some additional travel.
VDO allows you to have an experience on three levels. You have the opportunity to know a family a community and a country. You also have the opportunity to meet and bond with other volunteers from other countries. I had a very meaningful experience in a relatively short amount of time and am very satisfied with this exceptional program.