July 31, 2012
Kelly Vlaskamp is a project supervisor for Amigos de las Américas (AMIGOS), a non-profit organization that inspires and builds youth leaders through collaborative community development and cross-cultural experiences throughout Latin America. Kelly is a senior from Houston, Texas, and is double majoring in anthropology and sociology and Spanish.
Tell us more about your internship and day-to-day experiences.
As a project supervisor, I work with nine other staff members to promote youth leadership and to plan and implement successful projects throughout the summer. I oversee eight high school aged American volunteers in four communities in the districts of Acahay and Ybycuí [in Paraguay]. I am their main support system, help them facilitate community meetings, recruit local youth to be involved in the projects, fill out necessary paperwork, and do any and everything else to support them. My job includes everything from being a mentor to a mailman.
There's not a typical day for me. I start my week by going to a meeting with one of our partner agencies, Plan International, to discuss the progress of projects. After the meeting, I start my weekly community visits. I travel to each community to check in on the volunteers' emotional and physical health, help them with projects, attend the workshops the volunteers hold, check in with host families and community members, and to solve any problems that arise. My days vary so drastically that the only consistent day-to-day activities are the long distance bus rides through the Paraguayan countryside to get to communities, eating and preparing traditional foods, and doing whatever the volunteers need me to do.
What has been the coolest part of your internship?
One of the most rewarding parts of being a project supervisor has been watching the volunteers have life-changing experiences and going out of their comfort zones at such a young age. I visit volunteers once a week and have seen them transform into confident young leaders in such a short amount of time. Each week, I make weekly goals with them and see them accomplish their goals and notice how their self-confidence rises throughout the summer.
One of my communities wanted to build a school kitchen for their community-based initiative project, so I collaborated with community members and the volunteers to gather information for a competitive grant, the Bevil Grant, which is worth $1,500. With the information gathered, I filled out the application and recently found out that it was approved. The community members are very excited for this, and the construction process has already begun. I'm very proud to be a part of this process and to watch the community implement a project as big and sustainable as this one.
Other than that, a great part of this role is that I get to meet so many great people (in addition to my AMIGOS volunteers) while on route. I've met volunteers from various countries doing an array of projects; I've been invited to drink mate (a traditional tea beverage) with strangers while walking down the street; I've become friends with taxi drivers; I've been offered places to stay and meals to eat just because the people here are so kind and welcoming. Paraguayans have been so hospitable to me, and sometimes it's necessary to be reminded how many honest and nice people are in the world.
How did you learn about this opportunity?
I first heard about AMIGOS in 2008 from a friend. Since then, I have been a volunteer in Mexico (2008) and Nicaragua (2010), served on the training team for the Houston Chapter in 2009, and worked in the international office as the travel coordinator in 2011. I was already very involved in the organization when I arrived at Knox and when I decided to apply, the Spanish Department was very supportive and encouraging.
How have your in-classroom and out-of-classroom experiences at Knox have benefited you in the internship?
All Spanish classes and attending Mesa Española helped me prepare for this experience. To be on the staff team, you have to have a high level of Spanish, so every opportunity to speak Spanish at Knox helped. I also studied abroad in Barcelona, Spain, and Buenos Aires, Argentina, which taught me about cultural sensitivity, using foreign public transportation systems, and learning colloquialisms of the specific regions, especially Argentine Spanish, which is similar to Paraguayan Spanish. Last spring, I took Julio Noriega's Spanish Culture of the Southern Cone, which covered literature, movies, and history of some South American countries, including Paraguay. Outside of the classroom, Kappa Kappa Gamma has given me responsibilities within the Chapter that have taught me about responsibility and leadership skills, which I use on a daily basis in Paraguay.
What inspired you to pursue the internship?
After having such positive experiences with AMIGOS, I knew the next logical step was to become a project supervisor so I could support the volunteers and encourage them to make the most of their AMIGOS summer. It seemed [like] the right time to be a project supervisor because it was right after I studied in Argentina and Spain for two terms. After those experiences abroad, I knew I didn't want to sit in a cubicle staring at a computer screen all day and that I wanted a challenging summer, so I applied for the position and ended up in Paraguay.
How do you think this internship will benefit you in terms of your education and future plans?
Being immersed in the language and Paraguayan culture has been beneficial as a Spanish major, and I'm getting excited for Spanish senior seminar next spring term. I would like to study cultural anthropology with a focus on indigenous groups, so I was lucky to be assigned to Paraguay because they have strong indigenous Guarani roots. Because of this experience, I've decided that I'll eventually apply to graduate school for public health anthropology or urban planning, and hopefully I will do the Peace Corps.
(Below: Kelly Vlaskamp, front row, third from left, oversees eight American volunteers in four communities in the Paraguayan districts of Acahay and Ybycuí.)