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Volunteering in Spain Has Its Own Reward

Volunteering in Spain Has Its Own Reward

Sep 2016

Words & pics Beryl Eichenberger

‘You talk too much’ is a comment that has often been directed at me, so a chance remark about a volunteer programme where having just such a ‘skill’ was the major criteria seemed to be just up my street. That I could get to visit one of my favourite destinations, Spain, and also visit Aranjuez, a place I have had an on-going affair with since hearing the Rodriquez Concerto for guitar, seemed a match made in heaven .  

And it was.

For anyone who is a native English speaker, has a good command of the language, can keep a conversation going and offer friendly corrections then the VaughanTown English Immersion programme is highly recommended. As a volunteer you cover the cost of your flights and any accommodation outside of the programme but once at the final destination all expenses are covered (and that includes wine with the meals.)

The Vaughan systems have been operating in Spain for over 35 years but a pilot programme in 2001 of bringing Spaniards and Anglos together in a six day intensive English immersion programme was such a success that since then more than 350 such programmes have been conducted attracting over 9000 volunteers from all over the world.

So I volunteered and by the end June I was an ‘Anglo’ jetting off to Spain for a new adventure - with little idea of what I was in for and absolutely no idea of the impact it would have on me. 

Madrid is the central meeting point for all the programmes and the night before we set off for our various destinations volunteers gathered over sangria, tinta da veranno (red wine with dry lemon) and delicious Spanish tapas! With three concurrent programmes running in Aranjuez, Gredos and Belmonte we soon sorted out who our fellow Anglos were for the week and started bonding. An excellent introduction as conversation overflowed and I met volunteers who were back for the 3rd or 4th time as well as newbies like me who were a little bit apprehensive. Our Anglo group consisted of people from the North and South of England, Scotland, Australia, USA – Arizona, Los Angeles and Chicago, India and of course me from South Africa.

On the bus the next morning some very apprehensive Spaniards boarded and were seated next to an Anglo. The Spaniards knew that from the moment they boarded the bus English was the only language spoken and at no time during the week were they to speak their home language, even to their Spanish colleagues.

The Spanish group consisted of young professionals who needed to improve their English conversation for personal purposes or for their work and some older delegates who simply wanted to be able to speak English more fluently. But all had one thing in common – commitment.

While the first encounters were a little stilted by the time we arrived at Aranjuez there was more of an ease amongst the group and so we sallied forth into a week of the unknown. We stayed at the four star NH Collection Palacio de Aranjuez right opposite the Royal Palace of Aranjuez. The  town and municipality lies 42 kilometres south of Madrid in the southern part of the Madrid Region or Community of Madrid, Spain. It is located at the confluence of the Tagus and Jarama rivers and The Royal Palace of Aranjuez is a residence of the King of Spain.

The Palace was commissioned by Philip II and designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo and Juan de Herrera, who also designed El Escorial. It was completed during the reign of Ferdinand VI by the mid-18th century and Charles III had two wings added to it. We were fortunate to visit this opulent residence, which, behind the façade of redbrick and limestone and the statues of the three kings who took part in the construction, boasts a wrought iron and gold Rococco style staircase. One of the fascinating rooms was the Porcelain Room. Totally covered in porcelain plates and commissioned by King Carlos lll the room is additionally decorated with garlands and reliefs that include Chinese and exotic themes. It took between 1769 and 1765 to complete and the plates came from the Buen Retiro factory in Madrid. To say the room is unusual is an understatement.

There are numerous Palace gardens that are crossed by the quiet water of the River Tajo that surround the palace and we were able to walk some as we conversed with our Spanish delegates. Lush and green even in the hot summer sun, it was easy to understand why the Royal gardens had inspired Rodriquez to write his evergreen concerto.

Our programme director Daryl, was a delightful Singaporean who has worked for several years with the system and had us all running to his bell morning, afternoon and evening. Being late for sessions, rehearsals or suchlike is not tolerated and you learn quickly that this is the success of the programme. With bubbly and talented Carla as our Master of Ceremonies we also realised that there was going to be a lot of fun as well. 

There’s a lot more to just speaking English for the six days! You don't just talk to people, you share your life stories and experiences and the people you're surrounded by have different life styles and come from different backgrounds. Time is precious and that's ultimately what you share, and it was a simply magical week that offered lessons not only for the Spaniards but us as well. 

Within days I saw the results of all the time, energy and English I was using. The wonderful Spaniards blossomed, became more confident, and opened up to us. We all became friends! I also realised that I had a reserve of patience and a capacity to mentor that I had not been aware of – so it was a learning experience for all of us.

Chatting over the breakfast, lunch and dinner table, one-on-one conversations, presentations to be devised, sketches to be rehearsed, telephone conversations and conference calls all form part of the exercises. Each Anglo gets the opportunity to speak on a one-on-one basis to each of the Spaniards more than once and that, apart from the group exercises, gives you the chance to really explore each other’s lives. You are encouraged to explore the location when chatting to your Spaniard and so we enjoyed the glorious gardens, the lake teeming with birdlife and saw the quaint town.

Entertainment forms a big part of the learning experience and the amount of creativity that was poured into the presentations by Spaniards and Anglos alike was extraordinary. Everyone is expected to contribute in some way. Bollywood dancing, opera, short plays, comedy sketches and more led to some hilarious evenings!

Every Anglo has some free time during the week and siesta time is mandatory so while it was hard work the down time gave us an opportunity to explore the town, grab a coffee at the food market and get to know some of our fellow Anglos.

I am a great one for immediate gratification and volunteering at VaughanTown ticked all my boxes. By the end of the week I realised that ‘talking too much’ had its advantages and after about 80 hours in conversation was still up for more!!

Our last night was spent in a karaoke bar and everyone did their bit belting it out on stage. To see the friendships forged and the amazing metamorphosis from hesitancy to confidence made every moment worthwhile.

Would I do it again – in a heartbeat!

For more information:

Nightjar Travel