Alumni Spotlight: S. Janae Van Buren


S. Janae Van Buren volunteered in Ecuador from June 23-August 11, 2010 and is from Phoenix, AZ. She currently lives in Tucson where she attend the University of Arizona. Janae is 19 and just finished her freshman year of college majoring in Biology (pre-med) and minoring in Spanish.

Why did you decide to volunteer with Amigos de las Americas in Ecuador?

Janae: In high school, I made a life goal to help others and make an impact somehow, and I also realized that I wanted to see the world. I heard about AMIGOS from a friend and it sounded like the best way for me to accomplish what I wanted without having to wait until I was older. I was amazed that at such a young age, I could get involved with something so incredible. It seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity, so I took a risk.

Ecuador was a new project in 2010 after ten years of an absence of AMIGOS volunteers, so that was even more exciting because it meant I got to be one of the founding volunteers of the project. Little did I know that it would change my life forever.

Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.

Janae: In my community, my partners, Shannon and Erin, and I had a general schedule during the week. In the mornings we ate breakfast with our host sister and brother and then would spend the mornings with a different family from the community so that we could get to know everyone. While with these families, we would participate in their daily routine; usually we would go with the family to their plot in a field to harvest potatoes, plant vegetables, feed animals, or chop down the plants that were ready to eat. Then we would return back to the house of the family, where we helped in making lunch.

After lunch, we would rest for an hour or two before heading to the community building where kids from the community came to partake in our summer camps where we played educational games based around a weekly theme that generally related to environmental awareness or leadership. The camps were two hours long each day. Youth would also come to help lead the activities with us so that they had a chance to demonstrate their leadership abilities as well.

Half way through the project, the youth in the community decided to start a youth group, which morphed into a dance group. So every evening before dinner, we would come together to practice a new dance; they choreographed our dances so everything we practiced was original! We would eat dinner after dance practice and sit around the dinner table talking for hours before heading to bed. On the weekends, we spent lots of time with our host family, which included learning to cook, washing clothes by hand in the backyard, playing soccer, and sometimes going into town to the park or to get some famous ice cream from Salcedo.

What made this volunteer experience unique and special?

Janae: My experience was special because I felt like I left something behind in my community. There are new trees and murals to show that impact, plus I do believe that the community children truly did learn from the AMIGOS volunteers and the local youth. We held a community festival that allowed the children and adults to play traditional games while expressing the youth’s talent. I learned Spanish and made a difference in a community.

The whole experience also allowed for a lot of personal growth because sometimes there were tough challenges while trying to organize children and youth, plus I had to work through misunderstandings since the language barrier played a large role in the obstacles I had to face. By the end, however, knowing I made it through the challenges was satisfying and I have so many memories that I think about on a daily basis. I will never forget eating guinea pig or painted murals with the kids! Plus, I have a new family in Ecuador that I know will welcome me with open arms anytime I return.

How has this experience helped you grow personally and professionally?

Janae: My experience with AMIGOS has impacted my life in every way possible. I have fallen in love with Spanish and Latin America, so I am pursing a minor in Spanish in college with the hopes of becoming fully bilingual someday. I try my best not to take for granted what I have here and know that whatever I do with my life, it will involve making a positive impact on someone’s life.

I take any chance I get to travel since traveling, I’ve learned, is the best way to learn about a culture, a people, and a language. I am a better leader and have gained a new international perspective on the world. With the tremendous gift of Spanish that I obtained, I have been able to communicate more efficiently with close family friends that are native Spanish speakers. I am now forever a world traveler with quite a bit of Spanish under my belt, a passion for Latin America, and the leadership skills and motivation to pursue my toughest goals.