The Experience of Volunteering in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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"The Experience of Volunteering in Bocas del Toro, Panama".

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The Experience of Volunteering in Bocas del Toro, Panama

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Volunteering has become an increasingly popular activity among the younger generations, and I am noticing the same trend among our Spanish students, who decide to do voluntary work in Bocas del Toro while studying Spanish with us. Needless to say that we, as members of our community, are very grateful!

I’d like to think that this is because more people are aware of how fortunate we are. In my opinion, people like you or me were just lucky to be born in the right place, at the right time. I was born in what is called a "first world country", with parents that were educated and could give me a comfortable enough life, just as they were lucky to have parents who could do the same for them. If you are reading this, you probably had access to a decent education, four walls and a roof over your head to protect you, and are part of a culture where you are encouraged to experience starvation in order to look good, as opposed to being hungry because you or your parents can't afford 3 meals a day. It’s very important to remind ourselves of how privileged we are and that most people on this planet struggle on a daily bases to just get by.

5.15 billion people get by with less than $10 a day... can you even wrap your brain around that? And how about almost those 880 million that try to survive with less than $1 a day? Obviously there is something totally wrong with our world, specially when you consider that 0.13% of the world’s population controlled 25% of the world’s financial assets
5.15 billion people get by with less than $10 a day... can you even wrap your brain around that? And how about those 880 million that try to survive with less than $1 a day? Obviously there is something totally wrong with our world, specially when you consider that 0.13% of the world’s population controls 25% of the world’s financial assets

Had you been born in a Panamanian indigenous community for instance (click here for first hand accounts about living with Panama's indigenous groups), you probably would have grown up somewhere in the middle of the jungle, in a hut without sanitary installations, electricity, proper clothes or a real bed to sleep in. Luckily for you, this scenario is not yours, and your biggest day-to-day issue is that your wifi connection is slow and your facebook pictures don’t load fast enough on your tablet. This may be a bit exaggerated, but you get my point - we take things like running water or hospitals for granted, when for others, they are a luxury.

In some Panamanian communities, a metal roof is a luxury... for real!
In some Panamanian communities, a metal roof is a luxury... for real!

Volunteering is all about generosity. We always try to remind people that the goal is not to make you feel better about yourself (although it is a nice by-product), but to make a positive impact on the community you are helping. Give some of your time, share some of your skills, and even give away some of your wealth if you are able to. Having said this, maybe the most radical impact volunteering can have is just helping you become a better person, because lets be honest: by volunteering a couple of weeks you are certainly not going to change the world, and the impact you are really going to have will be limited if you compare it to what you could accomplish in the remaining 50 weeks of the year, but if you become a better person after your volunteering experience, once you're back in your normal life, the positive impact you could have on others on a daily bases could in fact turn out to be a game changer for those that surround you.

So, want to give back? There are plenty of volunteering opportunities if you're traveling to Bocas del Toro, Panama:

You can work with indigenous communities for instance. If you join the organization Give & Surf in Bocas del Toro, you can help improve the public education system. You would travel to different communities, and help set up the classrooms, build curriculum, teach, and provide socialization for students aged 3-6. Summer programs also focus on recreational activities like sports, games, music, and field trips.

Spending time with the kids at the local schools is also a great way to practice your Spanish
Spending time with the kids at the local schools is also a great way to practice your Spanish

Or, if you have a medical background, you could work with the Floating Doctors, who dedicate their time and efforts to provide medical treatment to those that are living in the most isolated areas. You would travel with them to different communities during their mobile clinics, and help treat the patients in their villages.

Medical students, nurses and doctors will also be able to work on their medical Spanish when they volunteer with Floating Doctors
Medical students, nurses and doctors will also be able to work on their medical Spanish when they volunteer with Floating Doctors

The Elderly Home (Asilo San Vicente) is another great place where you can make a difference. The seniors at the Asilo are often left without any relatives to care for them, and by investing some of your time in a nice conversation, you can put a huge smile on someone’s face. Tasks would include helping out in the kitchen, spending time with the elders, going for a stroll into town with them, etc. Especially in this project you will have to be very proactive and not wait around for someone to tell you what to do. Nothing is really expected of you, so it is imperative that you independently sense where help is needed and just go for it. Bringing books, or games will help! If you choose to volunteer through Habla Ya, a $5 to $10 per day donation is requested, and together with our Volunteer Director you will decide how this money can be used to help out at the local organization where you will be volunteering at. Some of our volunteers recently for example, decided to buy some paint, and re-decorated the dining room. Sensitive people should not work here however, it is not for the faint of heart.

A group of Habla Ya Spanish teachers and students spending some good times with the ancianitos
A group of Habla Ya Spanish teachers and students spending some good times with the ancianitos

If you prefer to work with kids, note that public schools can always use your help. You can help the English teachers (often, English teachers don’t speak the language correctly) or do manual work, organize sports projects and other activities of your choice with the kids. Once again, you should propose ideas to the teaching staff, and don’t wait for them to tell you what to do. Pro-activity is key if you want to make your time count. My personal suggestion is to teach the kids about recycling and waste management, as this is a real need in our communities =). Also, very important: there is a dress code for public schools: no hats, mini shorts or mini skirts are allowed.

You can also teach English to teenagers or adults at our school after your very own Spanish lessons. Twice or three times per week, we offer free English lessons to the members of our community, in an effort to facilitate dialogue between locals and foreign nationals (unfortunately there are expats who are not willing to learn Spanish), and to help the locals have access to better jobs. This has proven very effective, mainly among the local police force who needs to deal with foreigners on a daily basis (be it tourists or local expats). This option is however only available to those students who stay with us for at least 3 weeks, as a minimum of teacher continuity is a must.

One of the English class groups taught by Sarah Robinson, our Volunteer Director
One of the English class groups taught by Sarah Robinson, our Volunteer Director

What else is needed? We need people with initiative. People with ideas. People who come to Bocas del Toro, see what is missing, and who try to help out in whichever way they can.

This group of local ladies saw that our local goverment had our Central Park neglected so they took matters in their hands
This group of local ladies saw that our local goverment had our Central Park neglected so they took matters in their hands

Please remember that volunteering is not about you. It is about offering to help where help is most needed. If you don’t know where to volunteer, we will let you know where you could be useful. It is crucial that you come without any expectations (and remain flexible in terms of what you will end up doing), but with lots of motivation and an open mind.

LEARN MORE ABOUT VOLUNTEERING IN PANAMA... »

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Search our blog if you're visiting Panama! From must do's, where to party or eat, to which beaches and hiking trails you shouldn't miss, you'll find great insider info about Bocas del Toro, Panama City and Boquete, as well as Panamanian culture, customs and traditions, and certainly tips and advice for learning Spanish while in our country! We've been writing about all things Panama for over 10 years and nothing beats local knowledge from the locals themselves.


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2 Responses to "The Experience of Volunteering in Bocas del Toro, Panama"

  1. Jeerawan Srisathorn says:

    Thank you for writing the article, I like the way you describe Bocas Del Toro community. I went to visit Asilo and realize they did not get their basic need regarding principles of care. I had a wonderful time helping the elderly people at Asilo. Now I am back to Santa Cruz and help raise money to help the elderly at Asilo.
    Take care.
    Jeerawan Srisathorn

  2. This is awesome. Thank yo Jeerawan.


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