International travel, cultural immersion, and foreign language learning have always been my foremost passions. Throughout my childhood, my parents did a great job exposing me to new places and people, and I consequently fostered a genuine love of learning about the different histories, languages, and societies that the world has to offer. My upbringing also instilled in me a desire to volunteer and contribute to social projects overseas, and the combination of my desire to impact a community and my hunger to explore new places led me to do volunteer work abroad.
Why did you choose Shoulder to Shoulder?
I chose to volunteer with Shoulder to Shoulder for a myriad of reasons. First and foremost, I wanted a program that would offer me an experience that was much more meaningful than a typical “study abroad” summer. I had previously spent a summer abroad in France taking courses, and while that was an enjoyable experience, I was ready to take it up a notch—I wanted to work, help a community, and, while it sounds rather cliché, “give back.” The projects that Shoulder to Shoulder oversees were, accordingly, the perfect fit.
I also chose Shoulder to Shoulder, in particular, because I was familiar with the organization. Hombro a Hombro is a bit of a Gebhardt family tradition—my dad, a doctor who worked at the University of Cincinnati for over a decade, got involved with the program during its incipiency. Throughout the years, he has gone to Intibucá, Honduras for medical brigades with Shoulder to Shoulder at least ten times, and when I was 14, he took me with him. The trip, for me, was life changing, and it was one of those experiences that take place in one’s formative years that define him/her.
I was profoundly inspired by the work that the Shoulder to Shoulder volunteers conducted and I saw the genuinely positive impact that they had on Intibucá. Moreover, I garnered a love for the Spanish language and Honduran culture, more broadly, so choosing Shoulder to Shoulder in 2016 was, for me, a no brainer.
What was your favorite part about Honduras?
An extended stay in rural Honduras is certainly not for everybody—if you cannot live without the amenities and luxuries that most Americans take for granted (like consistent, running water, hot water, and unfaltering electricity), then you most likely would have a tough time adjusting to life in Intibucá. However, if you can cope with such differences, then life is great.
Camasca is a beautiful village, surrounded by incredible mountains and scenic vistas. The people of Camasca are astonishingly friendly and inviting, and, of course, the work at the bilingual school is phenomenal. Paul and Laura, the directors of Shoulder to Shoulder, run a great outfit and do everything they can to ensure that the model bilingual school of the frontera is equipped with everything that it needs to succeed. The children are adorable and the Honduran teachers with which volunteers work are cooperative and dedicated.
So, when asked about my favorite part about Camasca (and of Honduras, more broadly), I would unwaveringly say that the culture and the people are atop my list.
What made your experience abroad unique?
I would say that the most unique aspect of my time with Shoulder to Shoulder was that I really felt that my fellow volunteers and I left a palpable impact on our community. It was powerful to see just how much the children grew and learned after only three months of work—when we first arrived, many students were a bit reluctant to practice their English with us. By the end of our stint in Camasca, the children had grown far more comfortable with us and were having conversations with us in English daily My team of volunteers and I also placed a great emphasis on reading while we were there, and, much to our satisfaction, a few students have really taken to reading books in English in their free time.
The most unique aspect of my summer with Shoulder to Shoulder was the notable difference that we made in the lives of the young children at the bilingual school.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
Shoulder to Shoulder is a pretty small outfit—Paul and Laura, the directors, are the only Americans that are permanently stationed in Camasca. Nonetheless, they run the program efficiently and see to it that all of their volunteers are well looked after and happy. Paul and Laura give each volunteer a considerable amount of autonomy to find their own niche in the organization and in the school, and typically, they are very open to letting ambitious volunteers take up additional roles within the NGO, either by letting them assist medical brigades or participate in the Yo Puedo female empowerment initiative. They are a great team and create a very comfortable environment for all of their volunteers.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
There really isn’t anything major that I would’ve done differently. Perhaps, if anything, I would’ve brought about a thousand stickers with me—nothing motivates young children to study like the prospect of winning a sticker.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
I had a fantastic daily routine in Camasca—I would wake up every day at seven to the smell of coffee and the sound of roosters, and then I’d take a bucket shower. I would have a cup of coffee (which is infinitely more delicious in Honduras), eat some mini-queques, and go to the school.
For the first hour or so of the school day, I would prepare a lesson plan for my students, and then for the rest of the day, I would work with small groups of students as a sort of makeshift reading specialist. At three, when the kids went home, I would go back to the volunteer house, change, and proceed to the village’s gym (for the record, Camasca is remarkably unique in that it has a gym, as such things are not at all typically found in the rural villages of Honduras). After about an hour in the gym, I would head to the village’s only restaurant and would relax upstairs in a hammock, eating burritos, drinking coffee, reading, and enjoying some relatively fast Wi-Fi with my fellow volunteers. Then, I would do it all over again the next day.
On weekends, I generally traveled around with my friends and co-volunteers.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
With my free time, I went to the gym, read, played guitar, played soccer, hung out with my fellow volunteers, made friends with the locals, and practiced my Spanish. The culture in Camasca is relaxed, and I took advantage of the considerable free time that I had each day after school had ended. I also helped out with other Shoulder to Shoulder projects when I could, either by translating for brigades of doctors or working with the Yo Puedo program.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
The volunteer house was humble, for sure, but it was very comfortable and was equipped with all of the necessaries. We had a kitchen, spacious rooms, a hammock, and a bathroom. My favorite part about it was definitely its location—it is only a five minute walk away from the bilingual school.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
Every prospective volunteer for this program should be aware that the lifestyle in Intibucá is quite different from that in the United States or Europe. If you can’t deal with a lack of luxuries that the developed world enjoys, and if you aren’t dedicated to the mission, then I would recommend that you look for a different type of experience. This type of program definitely requires mature, respectful, and dedicated volunteers that are seeking intense cultural immersion.
Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?
The Shoulder to Shoulder experience has profoundly impacted my life—in fact, one of my former co-volunteers and I have already gone back to Camasca to visit because we missed it so much. My time with Shoulder to Shoulder broadened my worldview, without a doubt, and it has given me some very valuable insight as to what I would like to do for work in the future. The experience helped me find my love of international development, and I am currently making plans to pursue a master’s degree in international development management next year.
Would you recommend Shoulder to Shoulder to others? Why?
If you think that you can adjust to the lifestyle in rural Honduras and you are dedicated to furthering Shoulder to Shoulder’s mission, then yes, I would 100 percent, without-a-doubt recommend this program. It was the best experience of my life thus far.
Ben is a senior political science major at John Carroll University, with minors in French and Spanish. He loves foreign languages and exploring new cultures, and has traveled to 16 different countries thus far. In the future, he will pursue a graduate degree in International Development.