Macalester Today Winter 2011

Global Volunteer Wunderkind

IMAGINE BEING DROPPED into the middle of a South American country with a week to make your way to four remote villages, find housing and food in them for volunteers, meet the decision leaders, and determine each community’s major need.

And then imagine doing all this without understanding the local indigenous language. And being just 20 years old.

Macalester biology major Luisa Paredes ’11 (Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) accomplished all this and more last year as a volunteer supervisor with Amigo de las Americas, a 45–year-old Houston based organization wholly organized and led by young people.

For 11 weeks she and the eight high school volunteers who reported to her worked in rural Paraguayan villages, establishing community gardens, planting native trees, and constructing sanitary latrines. “It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Paredes. Which is saying something given that she moved from the Dominican Republic to a New York public high school without knowing a word of English.

Paredes had first worked with Amigos de las Americas in high school, when she volunteered for a summer in Brazil. Last year at age 20 she was responsible for eight 16- to 18-year-old volunteers, some of them away from home for the first time. “I couldn’t focus on my cultural shock because I had to deal with theirs,” she says.

Every day Paredes hopped a bus, moving among four communities in southern Paraguay. At each place she had to ask for food and shelter, from people who were themselves often desperately poor. What she recalls months later is the kindness, “people opening their doors to me, a stranger.”

One incident that sticks in her mind is the time she arrived at a tiny house just as it was getting dark. “This older lady took me right in and offered me food,” remembers Paredes. “I later realized it was her own dinner she’d given me.”

Although many locals were skeptical at first, ultimately they were glad to work with Amigos and its partner organizations on some essential community projects. “We don’t do all the work ourselves; we empower the communities to do it,” says Paredes, who led townspeople in identifying leaders, organizing fundraisers, and applying for grants. In the end, “We actually made a difference and it feels really good.”

Paredes, who hopes to earn medical and public health degrees, plans to first do a gap year, possibly back in her native country where Amigos has offered her a position. Eventually she hopes to become a kind of latter day Paul Farmer, doing public health work in struggling countries.

Her summer in Paraguay has given her the confidence to pursue that goal, wherever it takes her. Says Paredes, “I believe I can do anything now.”