As part of my sabbatical year, I decided I didn’t want to just sit around and eat bocadillos and drink great 2€ bottles of wine (one of the best things about Spain – not sure how I’ll ever pay for wine in the US again), but actually do something useful, like volunteering. So for 2 weeks this past August, I did just that, with a company called International Volunteer HQ (IVHQ).
Earlier this summer, I began to do some research and came across IVHQ. The organization is based in New Zealand but partners with local non-profit volunteer organizations around the world to help coordinate and provide volunteer placement. I wanted to stay in Spain for my first volunteering experience, so I was happy to see that they had opportunities through a local non-profit called Serve The City, in Madrid.
IVHQ is a great organization for global volunteering opportunities. They are very responsive to e-mails, and provide the support and peace of mind that you need when you are about to get on a plane and travel halfway around the world. There are dozens of different types of projects that local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) need help with. The projects range from teaching English to children or adults, working on an environmental or agriculture conservation project, working with special needs individuals, helping with renovation or construction, and more.
I had quickly realized while doing research that I would probably be the oldest one in the program, but I signed up anyway. Besides, IVHQ has a page on their website dedicated to those with a little more life experience, so at least from that standpoint I felt welcome. Still, I was nervous at first because I had never stayed in a hostel, lived in a dorm, been to jail… or done anything similar where I had to share a room with multiple people, not since summer camp as a teenager. What was I thinking? I’m in my late 30’s, I’m supposed to be at a certain stage in life, not running around like a college kid living in a shared dorm room, carrying my toiletries to the shared bathroom every day, hoping no one is using it. But it turned out to be a really great experience.
I arrived in Madrid on a Sunday evening and one of the coordinators picked me up from the Madrid-Barajas airport and drove me to the house which was located in a residential neighborhood in the Valdezarza area of Madrid. He gave me a tour of the house and showed me the room I’d be sharing (there were a total of 5 bedrooms for all of the volunteers, plus 2 bedrooms for each of the two coordinators). There was one girl there already, who I guessed was about half my age. She was a student at San Diego State. Of course she was. She had been there two weeks already and had one week left. Another girl arrived, having just been picked up from the airport by the other coordinator. She was slightly older but not by much. She was from Australia and was backpacking and traveling around Europe and was used to staying in hostels.
The first full day there (Monday), we had a 1.5 hour orientation session mid-morning and were free the rest of the day. I was feeling a bit out of my element, which was exacerbated by the anxiety I was still feeling after the terrorist attacks in Barcelona a few days prior. But by the next day, when my volunteer placement started, the anxiety started to melt away and I began to feel more comfortable. The next two weeks flew by after that.
The house had 22 people more or less and most everyone was very friendly and laid-back. No one believed how old I was and they also didn’t care. I made friends with 18 year olds and got to know even the quietest people. It was an absolutely amazing experience and I highly recommend it regardless of your age. They’ve had volunteers in their 30’s all the way to 60+. Everyone had a different life story and they were all open to new experiences and meeting new people.
Everyone was assigned to different placements in Madrid, with one or more people volunteering on each one. The volunteer placement I did was Agriculture, which in this case was working alongside immigrant farmers/gardeners in an organic huerto (vegetable farm/orchard). I chose agriculture because I wanted my first volunteer experience to have something to do with the environment and to be somewhat physical. I loved it. Every morning I took the bus to El Pardo which is in the northwestern part of Madrid, about 13 miles from the city center, near a river and hiking trails. I would grab a cortado (small coffee with milk) at a local cafeteria in the small town and enjoy a peaceful walk up a hill to where the garden was located, behind an orphanage and a beautiful church.
The church owns the land that the garden is on, and with the help of agricultural educators, social workers, and the community, the church developed a program called Huerto Hermana Tierra which is dedicated to providing work and community resources to immigrants. In the two weeks I was there, I learned a lot about organic farming and it inspired me to eventually have a house with a big backyard where I can grow my own vegetables. I met new people from different cultures. I practiced my Spanish with the farmers, and learned new Spanish words for less common vegetables (remolacha = beet, puerro = leek, etc). I picked crops (watermelons, squash, zucchini, onions etc), ran away from bees, pulled weeds, and planted crops such as lettuce and cabbage. It really made me realize how much work goes into where we get our food. It’s easy to take for granted being able to walk into any grocery store and easily purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, without thinking about the work it took to get to that point.
Another option that is available in many IVHQ locations is the opportunity to take language lessons. I opted to do the Spanish lessons that were offered and had 3 private lessons. Normally they offer group classes but since I did not want to start at the very beginning, the local coordinator suggested I do private lessons which ended up being the same price. If you’re interested in learning the local language, I highly recommend going this route as they often are offered at a discounted rate than what you would normally find in a language school. The only drawback was that it was hard to do private lessons in a house where people are always coming and going. We ended up going down the street to a small restaurant for the second and third lessons.
I am already dreaming of my next IVHQ trip!