I was an AMIGOS participant in the Paraguari region of Paraguay in the summer of 2000. My two partners and I were responsible for overseeing the distribution of pre-made latrine floors (think a slab of cement with a hole in the middle) to families in our host community of Ybyryty so that they could build sanitary latrines with walls and a roof and a floor cover. We also gave talks at the local schools about health and hygiene and constructed fuel-efficient stoves for a handful of families.
But what has stayed with me since then is not the work we did, its the relationships we formed and all of the things I learned about myself in the process. To this day, I am still in some sort of touch (albeit mostly on social media) with my partners and with several members of that community. I still consider them to be my family, even though I spent only 6 weeks with them more than a decade ago. The bonding that happens naturally with AMIGOS is something that I don't think can be understood by people who haven't gone through it. You can make lifelong friends in a matter of days or weeks. It also strengthened my relationships with my parents and sister. I lived with people who didn't have much in the way of materials goods, but they had the most loving, wonderful family. It made me appreciate my own family in a way I hadn't considered before that summer.
Before that summer, it was really hard for me to step out of my comfort zone. If I faced a challenging situation, I was more likely to run away from it than to face it head on. But then something clicked that first time I had to approach someone's house and explain, in Spanish, that we were North Americans in their community to give them toilets. I thought they would think we were crazy. Instead they asked us how big to build the hole for the latrine and would we like something to eat. And in repeating this process with dozens of families, my self confidence grew and I have never doubted my own capabilities since then. When I am faced with something new or unexpected, I know that I can get through it.
I also learned how to deal with ambiguity. It's common to say in AMIGOS that the only expectation you can really have about your summer experience is that things will not happen according to your expectations. Things will go wrong, supplies won't arrive, people will show up to your community meeting 2 hours late. It happens. So what you learn through AMIGOS is how to deal with it. That's a skill that takes most people years to develop.
Most importantly, I learned that I could be a leader. I could take charge of a project and deliver results. I didn't know it 15 years ago, but that summer in Paraguay would set the stage for what is now my career. I'm a project manager, and I was able to talk myself into my first project management job by telling my interviewer that if I could oversee the construction of 45 sanitary latrines in rural Paraguay at the age of 16, I could handle anything.
My participation with AMIGOS didn't stop when I returned home after that summer experience. I spent the following summer in Guanajuato, Mexico helping fund the septic tank for a local health clinic, and spent the summer after that as a project supervisor, responsible for the health and safety of 9 volunteers. I am currently in my 7th year serving on the Board of Directors of my local AMIGOS chapter.