Discover Spain’s Hidden Treasures through the Words of Her People
What comes to mind when you hear the words, “volunteering abroad?” Do you conjure up images of building bridges, working on clean water projects or training teachers in Africa?
Now imagine a volunteer opportunity in a historic Spanish village, where you stay in a four-star hotel, enjoy three sumptuous meals a day, interact with some of the most interesting and lovable people on the planet. And all you have to do is speak English for six days. Too good to be true? Well, yes and no. Yes, you experience all of the above and more. And no, this is not a vacation.
Why Volunteer at VaughanTown
When you volunteer to work in one of VaughanTown’s English immersion programs, you help educate and encourage Spanish professionals to practice the vocabulary and grammar they have learned through other VaughanTown programs. You also encourage them to converse confidently in English.
The goal is to help these professionals better understand the language, and to make themselves understood. My husband and I recently worked two VaughanTown programs back-to-back, and we are already planning to do it again as soon as we can.
VaughanTown, the creation of Richard Vaughan, a Texas business student turned English teacher in Spain, began in 2001, and was the first of its kind in Europe. Today, VaughanTown is the largest organization providing multiple English language programs for Spanish professionals, teens and anyone who wishes to learn.
The average six-day program consists of approximately 15 students and 15 volunteers, with a one-to-one ratio as the goal. The majority of students are Spanish, with some coming from Latin America and other parts of Europe. Volunteers come from all over the globe.
The entire day consists of conversation in English: one to one sessions are the core of the program. Practice in conference calls and one to one telephone calls is also part of the learning experience. The students can’t rely on body language, facial expressions or gestures. It’s all about the words.
The culmination of the program for Spanish speakers is a five-minute presentation on a random topic assigned to them. Giving these presentations means speaking in front of their fellow students and the volunteers.
Leading each VaughanTown program are a Program Director and an MC. The former does the scheduling, deals with problems that come up, takes ailing volunteers and students to receive medical care and about a thousand other things to ensure the week goes smoothly. The MC coordinates the activities, facilitates interaction, entertains everyone and is a pro at herding cats.
Our Program Director for both sessions was Giovanna Nabellini, a native of Brazil. She traveled the world, settled in Spain and fell in love with VaughanTown. “It allows me to meet people I would never meet otherwise,” she said. “There are so many interesting stories, and I learn so much every day.”
Giovanna sees the difference the program makes in the students’ English. Their level of proficiency increases, and by the third day, she can see a remarkable difference in their confidence levels.
Peter (Pete) Brown, our Master of Ceremonies from Leicestershire, England, has degrees in drama and photography. He became an ESL teacher in 2003. Along with his wife, Claire, Pete traveled, teaching until the couple decided to put down roots in Madrid, where VaughanTown became aware of, among other things, his comedic talents. That was nine years and 120 programs ago.
Pete adapts comedy sketches so that they’ll work with the various elements in the class. He also draws on his own experiences with hilarious results.
“Be prepared to meet some of the warmest, most beautiful people,” Pete said. “You come to Spain and visit the Alhambra and Segrada Familia, but the true treasures are the Spanish people.”
There are many reasons why VaughanTown has worked its way into our hearts and minds, but the number one aspect that will bring us back is the students.
They are, for the most part, professionals who want to sharpen their command of the English language to improve their prospects within the international companies for which they work. But for others, their time at VaughanTown can come down to a matter of survival. Some students were sponsored by their companies, while others paid the approximately 2,000€ as an investment in their futures.
These students, individually and collectively, gave my husband and me so much more than we ever gave them. I have fond memories of long walks with students during one to one sessions. The conversations covered a wide range of topics: families, jobs, shared interests and the best way to prepare octopus.
We learned about the different regions of Spain from the people who lived there; their unique traditions, cuisines, attributes and histories. We came away with a picture of Spain that could never be found in any guide book.
Is VaughanTown for You?
To be a VaughanTown volunteer, you don’t need to know a word of Spanish, nor do you need any kind of certification. We put in 14-hour days, went to bed exhausted and bounced out of bed the next morning eager to do it all again.
Our time at VaughanTown seemed like the United Nations when it came to our fellow volunteers. They hailed from Canada, The United States, England, Scotland and Peru. Some of us were new volunteers, while others had participated in multiple programs.
What we’ve learned from our experience is that no matter the diversity of the volunteers and the level of English spoken by the students on the first day, by the time we left, we were family. It didn’t matter whether someone was Spanish or Anglo, if someone needed help, an entire support network magically appeared. The bonds that were formed are strong enough to last a lifetime. All these people are priceless treasures we don’t want to lose.
“We recruit people who have lived a little, and are comfortable speaking with strangers,” said Volunteer Coordinator, Lucia Fraile. “We want people who have stories to tell. The evolution for the typical student is that they get on the bus on Sunday, and are scared, talking themselves into thinking they can do this. On Monday, they wake and realize they’re still there, and that this was a lot harder than they had thought. And then on Tuesday, they hit a barrier and crash through it. Then they give themselves over to the experience and have a good time.”
What You Gain
Lucia addressed the advantages for volunteers this way: “VaughanTown is an opportunity to come to Spain and learn about the Spanish people, to make long-term friendships and to learn about yourself.”
For us, the combination of a unique volunteer experience, the amazing students, volunteers and staff we met – and all this in a country we have come to know and love deeply – is something that can never be bought, borrowed or stolen. Most important, however, is the level of confidence we saw in the students. To be a part of this transformation, and to have hopefully contributed to it in some small way, is worth every ounce of time and energy we put into volunteering at VaughanTown.
If you Volunteer
Considering becoming a VaughanTown volunteer? Here is some information you may find useful to help you.
Belmonte is located in the south east of the Province of Cuenca. The hotel is a restored fifteenth century palace, which was built atop a hill on the ruins of what was the first thirteenth century Belmonte Castle.
Hotel Puerta de Gredos in Barco de Avila near the border of Salamanca and Extremadura sits on 15 acres with a panoramic view of the Gredos mountain range.
We volunteered at Belmonte and Gredos. In addition, VaughanTown also offers programs at Aranjuez, Jaraba and Alcazar.
What You Should Know
• VaughanTown provides transportation from Madrid to the venues and back.
• Volunteers are responsible for their transportation to Madrid and any accommodations before and after the program.
• A tapas get-together the night before departure enables volunteers to meet the VaughanTown staff and each other.
• If you speak any Spanish, it’s best if you keep this ability a secret from the students.
• Each program includes a half-day outing to a near-by village, winery or attraction.
• VaughanTown is insured for volunteer and student accidents or illnesses incurred during the program.
• There are no laundry facilities at the hotels, so bring enough clothing for six days, be prepared to hand wash or pay the hotel to do it for you.
• Complimentary wine, water, coffee and tea are served at lunch and dinner.
• Volunteers and students are responsible for any food or beverages consumed outside scheduled meals.
• VaughanTown makes every effort to include volunteers with special dietary requirements and individuals with disabilities.
• The Gredos hotel is wheelchair accessible. However, Belmonte might present some access challenges.
Typical Day at VaughanTown
Breakfast is a buffet of hot and cold items, including eggs, bacon, breads, meats, cheeses, cereals, yogurt, fruit, pastries and more. We organize ourselves at tables – two Anglos and two Spanish speakers – and begin speaking English.
10:00 AM to 2:00 PM
One to One sessions. For some sessions one Anglo is paired with one Spaniard for conversation, and later in the week, help with upcoming presentations. One to one telephone practice and mock conference calls also take place during this time period.
Lunch is a three-course meal with wine and hot beverage. The night before, we make our choices of lunch and dinner appetizers and main dishes for the following day. A salad can be requested for any of the courses, and I definitely took advantage of this option.
3:00 PM to 5:00 PM
We all have free time to sleep, work, walk or do whatever we want.
5:00 PM to 8:00 PM
Some engage in more one to one sessions and for others it is time for theater practice.
An eclectic mix of entertainment including volunteer presentations and theater skits. The skits are hilarious, and everyone begins to unwind from the intensity of the day.
This time is optional. You can hang out in the bar or turn in. Some evenings there are trivia games and other optional activities.
Information about all the programs and the applications to volunteer can be found on the VaughanTown website.
In Madrid for VaughanTown? Things to see –
Going to Vaughantown at Arunjuez?