There are a lot of gap year travel volunteer programs out there, and I remember what it was like sifting through all of them to find the right fit for me. Therefore, I hope this review will be helpful in giving you an honest picture of what it is like volunteering with Amigos!
There were several reasons why I decided to go with Amigos over other programs:
1. I was looking for something that would allow me to be as independent as possible, because originally I had wanted to go backpacking on my own. Well, it didn't really go over so well with the mom and the worried grandparents, so I sought out a program that would allow me time to explore and decide my own schedule (I did not want the type of program where you constantly travel around with a group) while reassuring my family that I was still alive and well.
Amigos fulfilled these two areas! You are left to your own devices most of the time and can decide to spend your free time the way you want to. There is a 20 hour/week minimum for your internship work (it can be a lot more than that, depending upon your agency, how much time your project needs/you are willing to dedicate, and the agreement you set with your supervisor/how well you communicate your schedule). For me, I worked from 8am-12pm, walked home for lunch (my work was a 10 minute walk from home, which was really nice), and went back to work from 2pm-5pm. This comes out to about 35 hours/week, not counting the hours I spent working on some weekends, especially when my project began to heat up with extra events and workshops. However, it varies depending on your internship agency, with some requiring much less time than others.
Even so, I had a lot of free time in the evenings, on weekends, and on holidays/days when work was cancelled. This gave me the opportunity to come across an art school in my neighborhood, where I ended up spending almost all of my free time volunteering at because I loved it so much. I would help with an English class, learn how to paint, accompanied the rock band on the keyboard, learned to play piccolo, and most of all, made some incredible friends with all the teachers.
In addition, we were able to travel on our own, so long as we let our Amigos supervisors know the details. Day trips to the beach were fun and easy. You also have the option of longer trips, but there's a form you have to fill out detailing where you'll stay, contact info, etc. for safety.
You get together with the other volunteers and the Amigos supervisors for workshops about once a month, your supervisor meets with you about every two weeks to see how you are doing (there is paperwork to be filled out for these meetings, but it's nothing complicated, just questions about your needs being met and how your project is doing), and the group goes on two excursions per semester, each one being about 3 days long. Therefore, most of your time is spent living in your community on your own, with your host family and any other friends you make on your own. I thought this was fantastic - it was a good balance, not too much of volunteer program-y things, but just enough so that you had support. The excursions are really fun too, and a great way to see other parts of the country with the comfort of not having to plan the itinerary (the schedule usually wasn't too rigid though - our supervisor changed things up as we went and always asked what we wanted to do.)
2. This program is really great for improving your Spanish. Since you are working at a local non-profit agency, you are forced to learn how to communicate effectively with your coworkers in another language. Also, staying with a host family and living in a community allows you to form deeper relationships with locals, which is invaluable when it comes to becoming fluent in another language - the desire to express yourself, to crack jokes, and to simply communicate with your friends and family serves as an incredible motivator.
3. I wanted to stay in one place and get to know that place really well, to form close friends and feel the rhythm of day to day life.... versus seeing glamorous snapshots of a million different cities on a whirlwind tour or doing very short term volunteer work that feels more like an attraction and less like a long term relationship with the community you are working with.
The Amigos program stresses cultural immersion from the standpoint of living and working with the community. Part of their philosophy is that the volunteer should act as a catalyst for community initiative, the end goal being that the community can sustain and grow the project even when the volunteer is gone.
Overall, I would say that my experience living and volunteering in Nicaragua with Amigos was one of the best things I've ever done, and I can tell you with utmost honestly, those three months presented some of the most beautiful, challenging, and spontaneous moments in my life. I really had no idea what I was in for back when I first applied for this program and packed my bags to go to another country for three months, because the interesting thing about traveling is that you think you are preparing for the changes in environment, like new foods, strange sounds, different culture...when really, what changes is something you cannot prepare for - yourself. You learn things about yourself that you were never aware of before, usually through the difficulties you face, things such as how you react to stress, the ways in which you choose to spend your time, your self-awareness of your own cultural background, your tolerance for ambiguity, your adaptability, to name a few. And to me, this heightened sense of self-awareness, and the knowledge you gain about yourself, are some of the most valuable outcomes of an experience like this.
I think these are things you can gain from any kind of experience living abroad, whether it is with a volunteer program or not. However, what is different about doing this with Amigos is that you are given the the tools and the framework for integrating into the community, and unlike traveling on your own or with a group-tour type program, by being a part of this program, you already have a relationship with the community. The supervisors for Nicaragua, Mateo and Vanessa, both live in the communities they work in and know people that can help you with your project or local youth that you can hang out with. The family you are placed with has a relationship with Amigos, so there is an element of trust and understanding that is established from day one.
So if you're thinking about doing it....
It will be one of the biggest adventures of your life, and it will very likely be the catalyst that sparks something inside of you that you didn't know existed before....
I kept a detailed blog during my experience, so please check it out if you would like to see photos and read stories about our Amigos excursions, my experience living with my host family, my CBI (community based initiative) project focused upon fighting street harassment and promoting respect for women, and a surprising incident with an iguana.