Volunteer Abroad: VaughanTown

Puerta de Gredos Hotel Feature

VaughanTown is a non-paid, volunteer program where Native English speaking participants exchange conversation for room and board in the heart of the Spanish countryside. I had the wonderful experience of participating in this volunteer abroad program in March 2013.

VaughanTown launched in July 2001 when they transformed an abandoned Spanish village into a tiny but bustling metropolis whose official language was English. They brought in 20 English speakers from all over the world and 20 Spaniards intent on learning English and hoped for a positive outcome.

According to Richard Vaughn, founder and President of Vaughn Systems, “Anglos had the most memorable 10 days of their life and the Spaniards were three times more fluent and confident with the English language.”

Four major Spanish TV channels ran reports on the event, including a 12-minute segment on Spain’s equivalent of the U.S. “60 Minutes”. Euronews also aired the 12-minute report in all 12 member countries and in every official language of the European Union. Seven months later, the Wall Street Journal published a report that also appeared in 40 major U.S. dailies.

Since the pilot project VaughanTown has conducted over 350 programs and attracted more than 9,000 English-speaking volunteers and Spanish clients. There are currently three locations to choose from. Locations change yearly, so check the site to see what locations are currently available. I spent a week at the Gredos location.

Puerta de Gredos Hotel Volunteer Abroad Location
Puerta de Gredos Hotel

This is an English immersion program. You will not need to know any Spanish to participate. In fact, Spanish is forbidden during the week of the program. You will need to get yourself to Madrid and pay for lodging the night before the program starts. The next morning (Sunday) you will board a bus and after that all of your expenses are covered until you return the following Friday evening. If you choose to buy drinks or snacks other than those served at meal times, you will be responsible for those.

According to VaughanTown the following qualities make you an excellent candidate to participate.

•Are you a Native English speaker?
•Are you naturally inquisitive?
•Do you enjoy nature and the outdoors?
•Are you patient and helpful?
•Can you talk about many different subjects?
•Do you enjoy learning new things?
•Do you enjoy socializing and meeting new people?
•Are you outgoing, open and friendly?
•Are you interested in learning about the Spanish culture and people?
•Do you enjoy helping people learn something new?
•Are you brimming with enthusiasm and zest?
•Are you adaptable to new and different food?
•Are you creative and fun?
•Are you totally clueless about the Spanish language?
•Have you had no previous English teaching experience?

The application is easy to complete with the standard questions about name and contact information. In addition you are asked to complete four essay questions.

VaughanTown Application Open Questions
VaughanTown Application Open Questions

A Typical Day

One-to-Ones

One to Ones are 50 minute conversations between one Anglo and one Spaniard. The one to ones rotate on an hourly basis, so by the end of the week you will see every participant at least once. I found these conversations to be the highlight of the program. Prior to arriving I worried about whether I would know what to talk about with the Spanish participants. I soon found that the problem was not what to talk about but disappointment that the 50 minutes went by so quickly and it was time for the conversation to end!

Telephone Session

A Telephone session is a structured one to one conversation over the telephone. The program coordinator provides a scenario for the conversation. Then the volunteer and the Spanish speaker each go to their own rooms and conduct a phone conversation in English based on the scenario. These calls were definitely entertaining. At the conclusion the two participants have about five minutes to debrief on what took place during the conversation.

Waiting for Next Session Gredos VaughanTown
Waiting for Next Session Gredos VaughanTown

Conference Call

Conference calls are structured role plays over the telephone. Three Spaniards and at least one Anglo speak in a conference call environment for 40 minutes. In my conference call scenario the Spanish speakers were in one room and played the roles of agents in a tourist information bureau. I challenged them with helping me plan my trip to Spain. They all did a great job!

Group Activities

After siesta there is a group discussion/activity designed for facilitating discussion and team building.

Entertainment hour

From 8-9 there is one hour of entertainment; music, theatre, jokes, stories, presentations, karaoke. The ice is quickly broken as the English speaking volunteers and the Spaniards provide the entertainment. Don’t worry. The program coordinator provides you with plenty of ideas to plan your part of the entertainment, sometimes solo, sometimes as a group.

The day starts at 9am and ends about 10pm.Truthfully the days are long and very full. There is not a lot of free time except for about an hour to an hour and a half after lunch depending on how long you linger in the dining room when the meal is over.  One day at Gredos we took a walk into the nearby town of El Barco de Avila between sessions.

Shop Owner El Barco de Avila
Shop Owner El Barco de Avila
Beans from El Barco de Avila
Beans from El Barco de Avila

The meals at Gredos were delicious and provided time for relaxing and getting to know each other. Seating changes with every meal, with an equal mix of Spanish and English speakers at each table. The rules are very strict. This is an English immersion program and no Spanish is allowed! The VaughanTown site FAQs provide more detail.

When I signed up for this program I only signed up for one week, nervous about committing to two weeks back to back if I found the program was not for me. Next time I will definitely book two weeks. I left with wonderful memories and lifelong friends with whom I communicate regularly.

Gredos Group Photo 2013
Gredos Group Photo 2013

Today’s social media options make staying in touch easy. Many of us exchange information via Facebook or email. Speaking by Skype with Spanish speaking participants helps to keep up the skills they gained during their week at Gredos.

I encourage anyone interested in participating in a program that provides an opportunity for you to help Spaniards improve their English speaking skills, while exposing you to the best cultural exchange program I have participated in, to apply and choose their week.

Anonymous

Kathy Stafford is a writer, publisher and editor. She was a contributing author to "Sasha Cohen Fire on Ice". She has been a contributing editor to several publications including, "Discover Balboa Park: A Complete Guide". Kathy was publisher and editor of "Skating Sketches", reporting on figure skating worldwide, for over ten years. She was a credentialed journalist as a figure skating specialist for the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City. She has covered international skating events in Switzerland,...read more

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