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  :: Volunteer Feedback - Guatemala

Sarah Cooke: Guardería Infantil
Jackie Boniface:
Asociación Bendición de Dios
Mark Swinyard: La Escuela Niño Obrero
Tessa Hargrove
: Hogares Comunitarios
Pati Allen
: Hogares Comunitarios
Claire Hunt: Niño Obrero


Sarah Cooke: Guardería Infantil, May 2005

"I booked with Cactus because I liked the fact that it was possible to book both a language course and organise a volunteering placement through the same organisation. I also saw a recommendation for you in a Sunday newspaper.

The school was very good and the standard of most teachers very good. Teachers were meant to alternate each week and when I asked to be allocated certain teachers over others this was arranged without a problem. It was very handy that there was a travel agent onsite, too, which made it easy to book weekend trips etc.

Antigua is a beautiful town with lots of things to do. There is a good selection of bars and restaurants and shops. However, it is getting increasingly unsafe, with increased incidence of armed robbery. One of the girls staying in my house was robbed at gunpoint and I heard plenty of other stories relating to people in my school/placement. It was the only thing that put a dampener on the trip, as I felt unsafe walking around the town in the evening.

I stayed with a local family and it was great. I had a big room and the bathroom facilities, although basic, were fine. There was plenty of very good food and the family was very friendly. I enjoyed all aspects of my trip and was very pleased with my volunteering placement, which I thoroughly enjoyed."


Jackie Boniface: Asociación Bendición de Dios , Nov/Dec 2004

"Last year I decided I wanted to learn Spanish & explore Central America. I looked at various websites for language schools & chose Cactus because they offered the chance to learn a language for 4 weeks & then do some volunteer work for 4 weeks afterwards. I had enjoyed a previous volunteer experience in Brazil, but had thought it would have been so much better if I could have spoken Portugese.

I decided to go to Guatemala because it looked an interesting place & I was right. I was very happy in La Antigua, a very beautiful city, for 9 weeks, living with a Guatemalan family who were very friendly, helped me practise my Spanish & cooked me some delicious food. I went to school for 4 hours a day, the teachers were very friendly, it was close to my house & we had small classes of only 3 or 4 students. The school organised lots of activities for the afternoons which was really good for helping us all to get to know each other as well as about the area & culture of Guatemala. I went horse riding for the first time in my life, climbed a volcano twice, learnt to dance Salsa, and travelled to other areas in Guatemala including the Caribbean & Pacific coasts. I met lots of people from all over the world & made some good friends who helped me enjoy my time there. After the language classes, I went to Alotenango to teach English, maths & play games with some Guatemalan children in a school. What a fantastic experience that was! The kids were great, friendly & so keen to learn as well as play.

All in all, it was great! I learnt lots of Spanish, had lots of fun & met some lovely people. Thank you, Jackie."


Mark Swinyard: La Escuela Niño Obrero, Nov 2004

"Thanks for the follow-up. I had an amazing time in Guatemala. The language classes were good. At the time I didn't feel that I was learning very much, however, a month later I was holding conversations in Spanish which I'd never
have been able to achieve before! So the classes were
a great success.

The teaching was also fantastic. The children I taught were fabulous and eager to learn (most of the time) and I got some great feedback from them when I was leaving in the form of letters and cards etc...it was very touching and I was sorry to have to leave them. 

One of my reasons for the volunteering was to see how I enjoyed teaching as I was thinking of studying for a PGCE this year. The experience was extremely enjoyable and I have an interview at South Bank University next month.

Antigua was an amazing place and the people were extremely friendly. I lived with two families whilst I was there as I wasn't particularly happy with the first family. The school dealt with this very well and I was a lot happier at my new home. Other than this (which was no fault of anybody's) I have nothing
negative to say at all, in fact I'd happily go back tomorrow if it was possible.

So, thanks again and please keep me informed of any
offers etc. that Cactus may have later in the year. Many thanks, Mark."


Tessa Hargrove: Hogares Comunitarios, Feb 2004

"Thanks very much for the email. The course and volunteer project were really good fun and thank you so much for all your help in organising it! The Spanish school was very good, and the course material (they have their own exercise and grammar books) was very well put together, in fact I have kept the books for future reference.

Through talking to other students from different schools, and also trying a few days in another school during my volunteer placement, I have found out that the scool is probably one of the best in Antigua. Although it is one of the most expensive I definitely thought it was worth the money if you want to learn a lot in a short space of time. The teachers were very friendly (some speak good English which helps at times) and I met lots of other students. The trips organised by the school were fun and well organised as doing them by yourself for cheaper was a bit of a hassle given the unreliability of the local transport. I even went on a trip with the school after I had finished lessons as I had friends still studying there.
My progess in Spanish was good in lessons (I swapped to private for the second two weeks) but would have been better if I had not being speaking English so much in the evenings with my friends. The homestay was fine and the mother in my house (a teacher at the school) was lovely and was very helpful in times of difficulty.
The project was also great fun but also quite a challenge as the vocabulary needed to control 20 kids seemed to escape me. A teacher came 3 times a week which was a great help as it took the pressure off me and I was able to spend more time helping the kids individually. The house itself (Hogares Comunitarios) was quite a confined space but I was able to take the kids out to the park to play. I also organised a trip with the other volunteer to take the kids in the back of a pick up to a park in Antigua (10 mins away) which they really loved and it only cost 60Q (5 pounds) between the two of us. One point I would like to highlight to future volunteers is that if you are buying materials for the children it is best to buy them in Antigua in a librería as it is much cheaper than in England and saves lugging around a bag full of stuff for the niños. Another useful tip is that instead of buying lots of colouring in books, one for each child, it is better to buy a few and then get photocopies, as this is very cheap in Antigua. For educational activities you can photocopy pictures to colour in of animals, numbers, shapes and colours as this is what the children were learning about. They also loved the picture cards I bought which had animals and numbers, on so they can play snap or memory.
The kids were very sweet and loved the attention of outside volunteers. A few were more difficult then the rest but all in all they were an absolute pleasure to work with and I was sad to be leaving them on the last day. I have about 80 photos of the children so I can remember them when I am back in England. Overall the project and language course ran very smoothly and I had an amazing experience which I will remember forever.
I hope this is all useful, and thanks again for a wonderful trip. Tessa."

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Pati Allen : Hogares Comunitarios, Oct 2003

"What a pleasure to hear from you. I would love to give you feedback about my trip to Guatemala. I will definitely be planning another trip with you in the future. I couldn't be more pleased with my experience.
While attending the school in Guatemala I had the opportunity to talk with students from all over the world about our various programs and accommodations. I was pleased to discover that several other Cactus Language clients agreed with me that we had the best service and the most hassle-free arrangements. We especially liked that we paid one price at one time and received all our classes and accommodation without having to negotiate week by week. Also, because we had such complete paperwork, when a problem did arise we had no trouble producing the documents to straighten out the misunderstanding. I personally was so very pleased how you quickly helped me contact my insurance company when I needed a claim form. Knowing you were there for me, only an email away, made me feel safe and secure. For my first adventure in a strange country, I couldn't have asked for better support.

The school was awesome. The classes were small and fun and the setting was the most beautiful in all of Antigua. The administration and teachers were really friendly and willing to accommodate my preferences and needs. In addition to group and individual classes, they provided weekly free or really cheap cultural and recreational activities that made the experience even more interesting and fun. As a group we took a day trip to the coastal town of Monterrico to swim in the Pacific and lounge on the warm black volcanic sand and we visited a Maya women's cooperative in a nearby town to learn about the Maya marriage ceremony, eat traditional dishes, and view the gorgeous hand woven textiles they produced. We took afternoon trips to a coffee plantation and a macadamia nut farm. At the school we had free weekly culture classes and movies. There was much more: teacher-student soccer games, salsa classes, and, of course, happy-hour rendezvous. 

My Spanish improved dramatically. I started as a high beginner and after 12 weeks I completed the intermediate level. I was able to acquire all the grammar they had to offer and had plenty of opportunity to practice conversation. In my group and individual classes I had many interesting discussions on timely topics like world and local politics, environmental issues and the history and culture of Guatemala. It was not all sugar coated for the tourists, either. We discussed everything, the good and the bad, with frankness and sensitivity. I really enjoyed learning about the opinions and views of students from all over the world. It was truly and international experience.

Through the travel agency located right at the school, I made side trips to Tikal to visit the ancient Maya ruins and Lake Atitlan to see that famous beautiful lake surrounded by three towering volcanoes. Again, for one price they set up transportation, entrance fees and accommodations. Although there are many travel agencies in Antigua, the school prices were reasonably competitive and I had the peace of mind knowing I was dealing with people who I know and who care about me. They also gave lots of valuable advice about traveling around Antigua and various parts of Guatemala and neighboring countries. 

As with all trips there were some parts that were not as much fun as I had hoped.  My experience at Hogares Comunitarios was quite an education in the pervasive poverty of the country. I was not entirely prepared for the low standard of sanitation at the Hogar. The kids were wonderful and really appreciated our efforts, however feeble. They like hugs and simple games like cat's cradle and hopscotch.  They loved to be read to and enjoyed my lullabies even in English. But I wish I had been better prepared for the placement. When I started I didn't have the vocabulary for playing and teaching children and so initially I spent a lot of time just hanging out with them. When I arrived, there were no books and few games or puzzles.  I spent as much money as I could afford to supply them with these. Still, I cried when I had to leave the kids. They each made me little cards and we had a nice party on my last day. I'm glad I did it but I don't think this is the type of volunteer experience for anyone who doesn't really love kids.

My accommodations were excellent. I was placed with a wonderful family at literally the last minute. My original host family had a some sort of problem and they had to reassign me on the day of my departure. It turned out, I later learned, the original family was double booking, but I really lucked out. My new family was warm and loving and so very helpful.  They served me 3 meals a day and the food was so good and plentiful I had to insist on smaller portions to keep from gaining weight! Even though the host families are not supposed to serve students on Sunday, my Señora couldn't help herself. I got a little breakfast and supper every Sunday. Although it is not very common in host families, the Senora also offered to do my laundry and ironing every week for only 15 Quetzales (less than $2). They even invited me to go with them on day trips in the countryside. Compared to most other students, I was living royally. 

So there you have it. It was a pleasure remembering the whole experience for you although I'm sure I gave you more than you wanted. Sorry, I couldn't help myself. I'm happy to say that I'm now using my Spanish skills everyday working as a speech therapist in a southern Texas town with elderly Mexican immigrants. And I'm still learning more Spanish everyday.

I still plan to move to the UK and as soon as I can work up the money I'm going to ask you to send me on another adventure. Cactus Language is the definitely the best! Thanks for everything, Pati."

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Claire Hunt: Niño Obrero, May 2003

"Of course I will send you some feedback. I have actually stayed on in Antigua this extra week as I wanted to do a further week at Niño Obrero and also I am writing an article about the school for an English language magzine here in Guatemala called Revue, so I needed a bit more time to
finish that too. I'll write more detailed feedback soon and if you do want any photos I'll have loads - but they won't be developed until I return to the UK in October (I'm travelling in Peru and Bolivia after this). And of course once it's published I'll send you a copy of the magazine article too for your files...

Carly, the other Cactus volunteer here, will probably also have feedback for you - our placements were quite different so between the pair of us you´ll be able to get some interesting feedback. Perhaps when I'm back in the UK
the two of us will have to pop down to Brighton to take you out for a coffee and chat to you in person after all this emailing?! Thanks, Claire."

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