Name: Eleanor Weekes
Hometown: Portsmouth, Hampshire
Nationality: United Kingdom
Languages spoken: English, Spanish (fluent), Portuguese (advanced), French (beginner)
University: University of Exeter
Bachelors: Philosophy and Spanish With Portuguese
Past travel experience: Avid
Volunteer Abroad: Caring for Disadvantaged Youth in Cartago, Costa Rica
Duration: 12 weeks
Start month: February 2016
Claim to fame: Eleanor has lived in two different Spanish cities, and has already visited 15 countries. Keep at it, Eleanor!
Why did you decide to become a UBELONG volunteer?
I decided to become a volunteer abroad for three main reasons. Firstly, I had always wanted to have the experience of volunteering, to be able to make the most of my privileged position in the world by giving back, to be able to offer help that would not otherwise be there, and for all the lessons I knew it would teach me. Secondly, I lived in Spain for a year and loved having the chance to really get to know another culture over an extended period of time. I wanted to have that opportunity again; to be able immerse myself in another culture, this time in a country much further away, and to be able to have the time to travel while I was there, too. Finally, I studied Spanish at university, and wanted to spend some time in a Spanish-speaking country to practise and improve. I was firstly drawn to UBELONG as their programs in Costa Rica would allow me to fulfill all three of these desires.
However, the main reasons I chose to volunteer with UBELONG were the program descriptions and the price. I knew that a full-time teaching placement would not be right for me, but still wanted to volunteer with people rather than animals or on a construction placement, so for me the caregiving projects seemed the perfect balance. I also found UBELONG to be an extremely affordable program with very reasonable prices, especially in comparison to other similar companies.
What advice would you tell a future volunteer?
It’s important to throw yourself into things right from the beginning. I was lucky enough to have a full three months in Costa Rica, but I know many people cannot spare as much time, and if you only have a few weeks you should definitely make sure you take the chance to travel and explore at the weekends. You’ll be in a country that’s probably very different to your own and with so much to see and do; I found myself watching the sun setting over the Pacific Ocean, ziplining through a rainforest, watching monkeys and sloths above my head and climbing a volcano, among much more. Take the chance to catch buses, sign up for group tours and see as much as you can, it would be such a shame to regret not taking more opportunities when you’re back home. I would also advise people to learn as much of the language before going as possible if you don’t already speak it; if you’re going from an intermediate level people will appreciate any attempts to communicate with them in their own language, and if you’ve never spoken a word before in your life, at least try and learn some basics before leaving, you’ll be amazed at the difference it could make to your relationships with the people around you.
Moreover, if you ever have days when you feel like you’re not making much difference, look around at everything that you’ve done that wouldn’t have been done or completed without you. Even if at times it doesn’t seem like it, your presence will be making more of a difference than you realize. Finally, try to see the experience as being like a roller coaster: there will probably be some bad days among the good ones, but remind yourself it’s not forever; you’ll soon be back with your loved ones, and you only have a limited time to make the most of this amazing opportunity.
What was your impact on your volunteer project?
I could see the impact I was having every day. I volunteered in a school for young adults with learning difficulties and disabilities, and all of the classes and sessions are run by volunteers. This meant that I was soon being relied upon to lead my own sessions, and it was clear that if I hadn’t been there they would have been struggling to find enough things for all the students to do. Less generally, I always found it so rewarding when I could see the difference I was making to individual students. I taught a lot of simple maths classes, and I loved being able to see the students making progress: one particular boy couldn’t begin to do a sum by himself when I arrived and didn’t even have the confidence to ask for help, but by the end he only needed minimal assistance to add two four-digit numbers and would seek me out to check he was doing it right.
Moments like these let me know I was definitely making a difference to these students and their abilities, and other moments, like the gifts and flowers individual students brought me and the song they rehearsed and sung for me on my last day, showed how they appreciated me simply being there with them. I felt extremely lucky to be able to be their confidant, their teacher and their friend, and to be a part of such an amazing institution.
Best packing advice?
Variety is key! You’ll need modest clothes for volunteering, summery clothes if you’re planning on visiting different regions, and definitely at least one warm jumper or jacket. Be prepared for all weathers – make sure you have both a raincoat and good suncream – and anything you can bring with you to share your own culture or to donate to your project will go a long way.