Alumni Spotlight: Jennifer Pazdzior

Jennifer and her 17 year old daughter Emily live in Georgia. Emily will be a senior in high school in the fall. They have traveled in Europe on family vacations the past two years, but this year they wanted to combine vacation with a chance to volunteer and work on Emily's spoken Spanish.

Why did you choose this program?

I had 3 things I needed in the program: Opportunity to do some good with my 17 year old daughter, location that would force her to practice her spoken Spanish, and be affordable. Every mission trip that her friends have gone on seemed to cost $3,000/person and that was out of my price range. I truly searched "family volunteering cheap" and Maximo Nivel was one of the top hits. After reviewing their website, programs, and reviews I emailed them. They responded quickly and thoroughly and made signing up easy.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Maximo arranged our lodging with a host family, transportation and where we would volunteer. They sent very clear information on passport requirements and what to do when we arrived at the airport. Our program coordinator went with us on the first day and helped us frequently with questions on how to provide the best help to our project. They will also coordinate excursions for your free time. All I did was book our air fare.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

You may need to be active in finding ways to help at your project. We helped at a small, underfunded childcare center with almost no resources where no one spoke English. If we had stayed on the sidelines waiting for them to ask us to do something we would have wasted a lot of time. You definitely want to be respectful of the program, but don't be afraid to jump in when you see a need and try something. We had a great success by using a roll of duct tape to make a simple challenge course on the floor and a miserable failure trying to teach them to make friendship bracelets, but I'm pretty sure the kids had fun during both. We learned from the bracelet experience and tried something else the next day.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

This is how our days went volunteering with children in San Jose, Costa Rica. Each day you have breakfast at your host home and then generally take public transportation to your project site. You spend 3-4 hours at your project. Then you can go the Maximo Nivel center where you have free wifi, computers, volunteer resource supplies, Spanish classes, cafe and a travel agency. We took Spanish every afternoon and worked on ideas for new things to do with the kids. Your host family provides dinner if you want to eat there, or you might go to an activity at Maximo like a free salsa dance class or out with friends. Weekends are free and they have lots of excursion opportunities to see more of Costa Rica.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was that we would get off the plane and find out that an organization that seemed great on the internet would turn out to be a hoax. Luckily that wasn't at all the case and as soon as we arrived everything went very smoothly. My second fear was how I would reconcile returning to my life of comfort and ease after seeing how little others had. That was still hard, but what I didn't expect was how much happiness I saw in those we were helping. These families had so little but we still saw smiles, and their sweet children brought joy with them each day.

Is it possible to find volunteer opportunities for my whole family?

Yes! A lot of opportunities are for adults only, but Maximo has some great programs that allow you to bring your children (or parents). It started out feeling like kind a of crazy idea, but I'm so glad we did it. My 17 year old daughter and I volunteered for a week before my husband and other daughter joined us for vacation. If we had just gone on vacation to Costa Rica, we would have experienced the beauty of the country but missed out on an incredible opportunity to get to know the people and allow ourselves to be changed by them. Now she wants to go back and volunteer next year with two friends for her senior trip.