If this type of travel experience appeals to you, there exists a myriad of travel companies who are seeking to take advantage of this skyrocketing trend. Some are legitimate organizations which are linked to specific projects in the destination country, and the travel fee you pay them not only covers the cost of your flight, accommodation, and land costs, but also includes money to support the project. It is essential that you do your research. Some not-so-legitimate companies may send you off to “volunteer” but there is no real program in place at the destination; although the need for help may be there, there may not be an infrastructure in place to help you to know what to do. You could end up doing more harm than good.
Before doing your research, you also need to decide which type of trip you are looking for: a regular vacation with a couple of afternoons helping out at a local homeless shelter, for example, or a month-long total immersion at an orphanage, hospital, or refugee camp. You also need to decide which cause would be the most rewarding for you, in the categories of health, hunger, shelter, infrastructure, wildlife, global warming, and more. You will have a wide range of experiences to choose from, with an equally wide range of responsibility, type of accommodation, and level of challenge. A good starting place is The International Volunteer Programs Association, an alliance of non-governmental organizations involved in international volunteer work and internship exchanges. Member organizations have to meet specific criteria before offering their services. www.volunteerinternational.org
Websites such as www.ethicalvolunteering.org can help volunteers to choose which programs are valid. “To get the most out of international volunteering, you need to put effort into choosing who you go with and what you do. For while there are some fantastic projects to take part in, there are also those that are poorly organized and exploit both hosts’ and travelers’ expectations.” Their Ethical Volunteering Guide provides seven questions to ask to help you pick an ethical international volunteering placement.
Some projects in Mexico include saving coral reefs, building houses, working on a ranch, helping in a children’s shelter, saving sea turtles, and helping native women’s work cooperatives, to mention a few. And here are some suggestions on where you can help here in Yucatán. Be sure the volunteer organization you want to donate to is legitimate. Recently there were some “missionaries” who claimed to represent orphanages in Mérida, Tekax, and Oxkutzcab. The list below includes legitimate organizations well known to Yucatan Today.
The mission of Brazos Abiertos (Open Arms) is to empower the people of Yucatán to respond to AIDS. Contact Dr. Carlos Cabrera [email protected] Cell phone (999) 292 8436 Website www.hivyucatan.org
Teachers on The Go/Let’s Speak English! This is a program where English-speaking people go into small colonias of Mérida and teach basic English to children who otherwise would not have an opportunity to learn this language. [email protected] Faye Jorgensen Cel. 999-190-0493
Pronatura Península de Yucatán focuses on conservation of important ecosystems on the Yucatán peninsula and with threatened species, some in danger of extinction. Web: www.english.pronatura-ppy.org.mx Email: [email protected]
Maya community support
Hacienda Chichén has three projects going on that support the Maya children, families and community needs in villages close to Chichén Itzá. For more information please contact: [email protected]
Scholarship Programs For Children
There are five expat women who have developed programs that support and promote education and health in the communities where they live. These programs keep deserving kids in school – kids who have good grades and at least a shot at university.
Progreso, Chicxulub, Cholul, and Telchac Puerto are the lucky towns to have these enterprising, caring, giving, creative women as residents.
While the beaches are beautiful, relaxing places for snowbirds, for the locals who live there full-time, the majority of whom are fishermen, they find fishing to be a tricky profession. Between over-fishing and fickle weather, many a fishing trip is either cancelled or doesn’t bring in enough fish to cover the families’ living expenses.
In the interior of the state (Cholul, for example) henequen (sisal fiber) was the main crop that supported the Maya families. That industry faded away with the invention of synthetic fibers, so once again, families have to find other sources of income, which in many cases means going to the ports and becoming fishermen or working in construction in Mérida, Cancún or Riviera Maya. All this job instability adds up to poverty, and poverty means kids can’t go to school because they can’t afford the supplies and obligatory uniforms. Many of these kids are sent out to work as fishermen (young ones!), maids or construction helper workers – the low ones on the totem pole.
While school in Mexico is free, the obligatory uniforms, shoes, books and supplies are not included, so for the poorest of the poor, it is often impossible for the families to buy these things, especially when there is more than one child in a family. At times, the eldest child (or eldest boy) can attend school if and when the family can afford it. Thus, a few of the poorest learn some basic skills, but most kids can look forward to adult lives of fishing and poverty, just like their parents. Many live in tin or tarpaper shacks with no running water, electricity or proper sanitation. There are few government social services available and the meagre resources of local church groups are stretched pitifully thin trying to help so many.
Progreso is where Kitty Morgan founded her Apoyo (Support) Program. The program supplies grade school and junior high school children with their backpacks, school supplies, uniforms, and shoes and socks. She has 50 students in her program, all of whom must maintain an 8-point grade average. Kitty receives the majority of her support from the snowbirds who live along the coast during the winter months. While she does have 50 students, she also has a waiting list for other deserving students. She can be reached at [email protected]
In Cholul, Pattie Trapp is running two programs. One is Adopt-a-Kid where she also supplies the kids with their backpacks and school supplies, and another where she gives 36 kids breakfast and vitamins each morning. Pattie’s is a newer program and definitely needs support in the form of money or monthly allotments of milk, rice, cereal, etc. You can contact her directly at [email protected]
In Telchac Puerto, Judy Abbott Mier y Teran has started the newest program, similar to Kitty’s Progreso program, where the kids get their backpacks, school supplies and uniforms. School supplies include lined, unlined and squares notebooks, lead and colored pencils, red, blue and black pens, white-out, a calculator, a ream of bond paper, a geometry set, glue sticks, scissors, modeling clay, etc. Launched in January 2009, her goal was to find sponsors for 15 kids in grade school, Jr. and Sr. High. She has surpassed her goal, which she feels is all the better for Telchac Puerto. You can contact her directly at [email protected] Susan Stewart of K’ab Yucatan is working closely with Judy in Telchac Puerto as she has so much direct contact with the snowbirds and foreign home owners.
The snowbirds, ex-pats and Meridanos who own beach homes are very generous with their funds when it comes to education. And, an interesting thing that is happening, is that many people want to sponsor girls, believing that if you educate a woman, you educate a family.
The Chicxulub Food Bank began operating in November 2005 to respond to an identified need in Chicxulub. Contact Sharon Helgason, Chix Food Bank Tel. (969) 934-0558 [email protected] Website: http://chixfoodbank.com/index.htm Chicxulub is a very lucky town to have Sharon Helgason. Sharon is many a person’s heroine with all the various programs she has going on. One is with education; another is at the old folks’ home where she supplies knitted shawls and slippers, manicures, pedicures and haircuts plus exercise; another is monthly basic food staples for 90 families, baskets of goodies for newborns and yearly Christmas baskets. She also has a breakfast program going for several kids. With so many programs, Sharon needs whatever support she can receive – be it in money or in kind. Check out her website at: chixfoodbank.com or contact her at [email protected]
Help for stray animals
In Mérida, one of the most effective animal rescue and shelter operations is AFAD, Albergue Franciscano del Animal Desprotegido. Tel. 920 5019. Visit their website at afad.org.mx Email: [email protected]
Yaxunah Centro Cultural
Think about visiting for a day to swim in our cenote and tour the cultural interpretive center and gardens. Think about staying for a week as a volunteer to teach art classes, embroidery, dance, or to plant trees or paint the town green. Think about staying for a month of research in our library, to help us document the flora of the area, or to teach ESL-type classes or computer skills to our young people. You are welcome for any length of time. Share your skills with us or just come and relax. Contact: Manuel Jesus Canul Canul Email: [email protected] Website: http://yaxunahcentrocultural.org/
If successful, the volunteer travel experience should leave you with a sense that your presence made a small but positive difference to the place you spent your time, while also providing a rewarding experience for you.