In my junior year, I began to yearn for real-life experiences, ones that could put my course work into a meaningful context. As a Latin American Studies major with minors in Spanish and Biology, I had little hope of finding an internship that would blend all my interests. But William Lerch, director of Experiential Education at Chico State, convinced me to research the possibilities on the computer. I was amazed at what was available. With just a few pokes at the keyboard, we found the internship of my dreams: eight weeks in Santa Rosa, Ecuador, working with AMIGOS de las Americas, a non-profit organization providing leadership opportunities for North American youth, public health service to communities in Latin America, and better cross-cultural understanding between both continents. It was a perfect fit.
Because AMIGOS is a volunteer project, interns have to pay their own way. I needed help coming up with the $3000 my trip would cost, so my local newspaper printed a story about AMIGOS inviting people to make donations. Over half of the cost was donated by Red Bluffs doctors, the Peace Officers Association, and community organizations. AMIGOS also gave me a grant.
My adventure began at an orientation in San Francisco with twenty other volunteers, ranging from sixteen to twenty-two years old. We received training in cultural sensitivity and housekeeping procedures. Three of us went on to Ecuador for a few days of instruction in growing vegetable gardens. I was assigned to a community health project in Santa Rosa designed to promote family health and environmental education with a focus on organic gardens. The main goal was to help women combat anemia, a prevalent problem because most give their husbands all the foods high in iron and dont wait between pregnancies to replenish their own supply of iron. Our plan was to teach women how to grow iron-rich vegetables.
Santa Rosa is located in southwest Ecuador. To the east are banana plantations; to the west, shrimp farms. Most people live on the outskirts of town in cane houses built on stilts, surrounded by banana and papaya trees. All AMIGOS volunteers live with families.
I stayed in a two-story concrete block house in town. Houses are built close together and in a constant state of construction, with the ceiling of one level always ready to become the floor of a higher level. My host family was multigenerational, with a grandmother and uncle living upstairs, while another AMIGOS volunteer and I lived downstairs with the rest of the family. We became very close.
Our weekdays began with bread and warm milk with instant coffee or chocolate. To avoid becoming a burden to the host family, I ate lunch and dinner with a different family every three days. A typical meal was a plate of white rice and fried anything. Everything is fried. I tried to introduce ideas about California cuisine and cooking techniques whenever I could.
Each day I worked at the local technical high school. The first hour was spent teaching conversational English to fifteen girls, who were planning to become secretaries. (At the end of my visit, the girls not only knew appropriate business lingo, but also they could sing a mean rendition of Surfing USA. ) Then I spent several hours working with students from an agricultural physical education class on growing family gardens.
The dusty dry land around the high school had to be made into raised beds, and the soil had to be prepared and enriched. I gave instruction in soil preparation and fertilization. Initially, I was taken aback by the depth of my task. I had to go to animals, collect manure, and then bring it back to the school to break it into the soil. Finding animals wasnt difficult because pigs and chickens run freely through the dirt-and-rock streets and in and out of houses. Eventually, there should be some fifty gardens at the school. During my tenure, we got eight gardens up and running and were able to harvest from one. Our project was so successful, we were invited to present the project to an adjoining barrio.
While our weekdays were hard, our weekends were filled with salsa and marenge music, emanating twenty-four hours a day from cars, houses, and stores; dancing until dawn; and a relaxed, happy atmosphere. By the end of my stay, I learned salsa dancing, and some Santa Rosa women had learned to take up jogging.
My internship solidified my plans after I graduate from Chico State. I will work in community development and public health in Latin American countries. And as one of my colleagues commented, It doesnt matter how much you study Latin American health issues; the real way to make a difference is to open your heart and listen. I feel as though Im halfway there already.
Jody Durden is a senior in Latin American Studies. She went on a National Institutes of Health internship last summer.
Here I am at a banana plantation. Ecuador is the number one producer of bananas in the world. My host family was very proud of this and wanted us to know the workings of a plantation.
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