One of the questions I posed to Nathan Darity – Amizade’s Creative Director – the first time I talked to him to talk about an individual volunteer placement in Santarém, Brazil, a city I had never heard of before, was “Why would I need to pay to volunteer?” It seemed so counter-intuitive. If I’m dedicating my time and labor, shouldn’t my housing, food, and incidentals be at least provided? I had my doubts, but in my research, every organization for overseas volunteering seemed to require not only just payment, but a lot of payment. It almost disgusted me, to be honest, because it looked like volunteering overseas was a tourist industry, something for the American with a bit of money and time on her hands to go and pretend she’s making a difference and feel self-fulfilled. I know, it’s the extremely cynical way of thinking about it.
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But Nathan changed my mind. He said, “You’re not paying to volunteer. You’re paying to help you find a place to volunteer and the administration, for your housing, for your food, for your cultural experience we’ll provide, travel insurance, and a donation to give to whatever organization you volunteer for.” Oh, well that makes a little bit more sense, to have it broken down like that.
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I had a career break of several months after I graduated law school, so I figured I would spend time in Brazil, since I had been learning Portuguese and I liked it a lot when I visited with WVU College of Law the year before. I had been looking for things to do while I was in Brazil since I couldn’t see myself seriously spending five months just hanging out at the beach. One of my professors pointed me in the direction of Amizade, and that’s how I talked to Nathan.
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So I signed up for six weeks. My mom said I was crazy to be paying as much as I was to volunteer but first of all, Amizade was the cheapest organization I had come across, and second, I repeated to her what Nathan had told me. She still had her doubts, but I was going forward with it because at least I would have something to do, and have a reason to go to a region of Brazil that even most Brazilians have never seen. And now that I’ve spent my six (actually seven) weeks in Santarém, I am incredibly happy that I did it, and it was all due to Amizade. There are plenty of reasons, but I’ll keep it short with my top three. First, I never would have thought to go to Santarém if Amizade weren’t there. It’s a relatively small city along the Amazon River that is relatively expensive to reach by plane or by boat, with poor internet access. (It has internet, it’s just not great.) It doesn’t even have any hostels in the city itself (although there is one or two in Alter do Chão, a “hippie” town about 15km away that has beaches on the river). Not a lot of tourists venture out to this part. Most people go to Manaus or Belém, the two larger more well-known cities of the Amazon.
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Second, without my time in Santarém, my Portuguese would never have improved quite like it did. There is not a lot of English there; in fact, the only English I really encountered was with Amizade’s Brazil Site Director Micah (my host sister spoke English too but we kept it to Portuguese so I could practice). And there’s nothing like total immersion to improve language skills. This is not to discourage anyone who doesn’t speak Portuguese from coming to Santarém – I specifically chose an experience to meet my solitary goal of improving my Portuguese, and Micah obliged by finding me a volunteer location that didn’t have any English. Besides, you’ll find that quite a lot can be communicated through gestures alone.
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Amizade volunteers

And third, I am really glad to have contributed something to the community. I volunteered at a daycare for malnourished children, which is actually a German organization. There were two German volunteers there at the same time, but they were staying for an entire year. My seven weeks paled in comparison. Four weeks passed before I had really gotten to know all the parts of the daycare, so there was not a lot of time to establish a project. At first I did feel like the “American tourist” as I alluded to before, there just for personal gratification and of no great use to the organization itself (obviously an extra set of hands is always welcome, but perhaps a Brazilian would be more useful than I with more language and cultural awareness). But then I happened upon an opportunity to bring to the organization a unique skillset: familiarity with Microsoft Excel. It was by chance more than by my own invention; the nurse asked me if I would be able to do something on the computer for her, and I took it as a chance to take it above and beyond expectations. I took data that the organization was keeping on the height and weight of each child and created graphs to visualize the level of malnutrition according to World Health Organization standards. It was an easy way for the nurse to identify the children who were most at risk. I created it in a way for her to continue, even after I left. Knowing that I did something that will be used in the future made me feel a lot better about being that American “tourist.”
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Santarém is different than any other place in the world. I haven’t traveled the world, but I have confidence in this fact. It’s my favorite city in Brazil, though, and I have visited a lot of places in Brazil. I joked with Micah that in twenty years, I’ll come back to Santarém and open a hostel where Amizade volunteers can stay.
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Truly, thank you Amizade for making my trip to Brazil a truly memorable one. It’s one thing to travel Brazil in hostels, but it’s a whole new, unrepeatable experience to be fully immersed into a culture. There’s no better way to truly get to know Brazil and Brazilians.