Teresa Ortega - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

There were two things that inspired me to go abroad; the first was my excursive heart and the small ways I believe I can help make a difference in the world. While I enjoy volunteering very much, this was also the perfect opportunity to discover new things, new experiences, and to develop new skills. Fundamentally, volunteering had a meaningful and positive impact on the community, and most importantly, myself. Prior to this trip abroad, I hadn’t traveled alone since childhood, but in the recent years I found myself wondering, “What if…?” I wanted to try something I always read of people doing, that I never thought I would have the courage to do myself. A chance at traveling solo outside of the country, without family or friends to do everything with. I wanted to genuinely strip myself of all that I knew and to step outside of my comfort zone.

Barrio Cuba in San Jose, Costa Rica
My project site in Barrio Cuba

Why did you choose International Volunteer HQ?

After searching for a volunteer organization for the last two years, I had finally hit the jackpot! International Volunteer HQ has endless opportunities with over 30 destinations and 150 projects to choose from. With my inspirations in mind, I searched for a country I had never visited before and also a place that was in need of construction and renovation project help. Costa Rica is a rainforested Central American country, known for its beaches, volcanoes, and biodiversity. Still, many communities in the capital of San Jose are under-funded, rundown, and in need of renovation work. At home, in Southern California, I work in the commercial interior design industry and I had a great desire to put this to use abroad. What better place than Costa Rica to do so?

What was your favorite part about San Jose?

My favorite part about San Jose was the way it made me feel. I was 200 percent immersed in tico culture, and I enjoyed how different it was compared to what I’m used to back home. For instance, the hour-long drive in traffic to-and-from work versus the 20 minute bus ride in Central America. And you're probably thinking, "Wow, out of all things..." but this bus ride allowed me to soak in every single second, smell, and sound on the way to work in the morning. It also gave me the clarity to look past myself and appreciate how lucky I was to have been able to experience this. Every morning on the bus ride I'd get to listen to an elderly man play his guitar and sing Spanish songs, which never happens at home. For a week, my life felt raw and so pure.

What made your experience abroad unique? 

Many things made my experience abroad unique.

Venturing abroad alone pushed me to recognize that not knowing everything is okay and being with yourself doesn't necessarily mean you're alone.

I met a wonderful and sweet woman, my host mom, who cooked delicious meals and taught me how to use public transportation. I also met a fellow designer from Florida, to whom I grew close and was able to roam the city with. In essence, I came home knowing I had just done something I never imagined myself doing.

Volunteer painting a mural in Costa Rica
Myself in action at daycare

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The local staff was very friendly and supportive. They were my go-to when I did not know which bank to use, which beach you could not miss, where to find computers for research, currency exchange, and volunteer activities throughout the week to participate in. They had been in my shoes before. Overall, they were very knowledgeable, and did I mention super friendly?

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently? 

I wish I would have planned for a longer stay during the program. At first, I thought one week would be the perfect amount of time for a first-timer to try. But after being there for just a couple of days I knew I could have stayed longer. The thought of permanently staying might have crossed my mind once or twice even. Here, I met friends that planned to stay for a week or two and extended for months. Being abroad, volunteering and meeting like-minded people makes you feel like you’re in another world.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

A typical day in the life of a construction and renovation volunteer consisted of: breakfast at home, catching the bus to headquarters to meet with my teammates, and a series of three bus rides through town to Barrio Cuba. Once in the neighborhood, at the Bethel Church we would be greeted by our program leader and pastor, who would help us plan our day and break into groups. Each group was assigned to do a specific task in the renovation of a childcare center and playground. I mostly worked inside the daycare: brainstorming creative ways to maintain the children engaged within the space, painting, and taking proper steps to meet requirements against health hazard conditions due to weather. Luckily for us, we had the morning shift so when work ended we were free to explore downtown and all the city had to offer.

Daycare center in San Jose, Costa Rica
Inside the daycare center

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

During my free time I mostly roamed through Avenida Central, this is the downtown area. There are museums, shops, local food restaurants, street vendors, and live music to name a few things. One of my first days in town, I visited the National Museum followed by souvenir shopping in the rain. I also took a salsa and cooking class offered at headquarters by local staff. During my time in San Jose, we had a holiday. Each August 2nd, on the anniversary of the miraculous discovery of the Virgen de los Angeles, pilgrims from every corner of the country (and beyond) walk the 13 miles from San José to the basilica. So when in Costa Rica, do as the ticos do; my roommate and I joined the pilgrims for three miles on our way home that night. I visited the basilica the next day and I can’t put into words everything I felt standing in the middle of the crowd that afternoon.

On the weekend before my return home, I zip-lined in San Luis and visited the Manuel Antonio beach where I soaked in the sun, let the weaves beat against me, covered myself with the soft sand, walked barefoot through the jungle, hiked to find my hostel, and got to see a beautiful sloth in the wild. On the four-hour bus ride home I kept thinking to myself, “Wow. Honestly, how could I ever forget any of this?”

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

My accommodation in Costa Rica with my host family was dorm style. I shared a room with another volunteer whose time ended when mine had started so I lucked out with the room all to myself for about four days. Everything was clean, cozy and comfortable. My host mom did a great job at making me feel at home. What I liked best about my stay, besides my host mom, were the amazing meals she cooked daily. I did not miss supper the entire week, even if it meant busting a mission back home.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in an International Volunteer HQ program? 

One or two things I can share with participants before joining the program of their choice would be to do research about the country, language, and culture. Research, research, research! It makes a big difference and for me, it made it the experience more enjoyable. Lastly, come experience something like this with an open mind; allow yourself to explore, to not know, wander, and immerse yourself in the moment.

Now that you're home, how has volunteering abroad impacted your life? 

Now that I'm home and I reminisce about my time abroad, I have found affirmation that this is something I will continue to do in the future. Going away helped me center my energy and prove to myself that it's fine to remove oneself from the security and comfort at home. In the long run, I gained sense of what truly matters and makes me happy wholeheartedly all over again.

Would you recommend International Volunteer HQ to others? Why?

I would definitely recommend International Volunteer HQ to others because everyone should have the opportunity to live through an experience like this. The road to departure is a breeze with all the support and information available online. In short, you get to learn and/or practice new skills while doing something humanitarian abroad that ultimately leaves a bigger impact on yourself.