Since it was founded in Houston 50 years ago, Amigos de las Americas has sent 26,000 U.S. high school and college students to work on projects in Latin American communities.
“Our approach is not necessarily to help the needy; that is not what we do," said Marta Ascherio, an Amigos de las Americas regional director. "What we do is create programs that invest in the capacity of young people to be leaders for themselves and leaders for their communities.”
Amigos de las Americas President and CEO Sara Nathan said participants work on projects to improve education, health care or community resources.
“They are really also about training and giving young people the experience of learning how to identify something to do in their communities and carry it out themselves,” she said.
Former volunteer and current staff member Ryan Kingston was studying computers when he signed on for what turned out to be a transformative experience.
“It was really great to get to know kind of what it is like to travel and to live in a different circumstance and to really focus on learning a new language and developing a whole other part of my brain that I hadn’t really been working on,” Kingston said.
Since 1965, Amigos volunteers and staff have developed lasting friendships in Latin America.
Ascherio said she learned that character and virtue have little to do with economic circumstances.
“I didn’t see it as poverty; I saw it as my friends and my family," she said. "And so I think it gave me this really unique perspective on: What does poverty mean? What does it mean to be happy? What does it mean to have enough? What does it mean to have a life?”
Over the years, Amigos de las Americas has expanded from summer programs to some programs that last up to a year and at least one U.S.-based program.
“It is the first program Amigos has run where we bring Latin Americans to the United States to do their training and then they go home to do their service abroad,” Nathan said.
Nathan said many Amigos participants go on to make careers in the U.S. Foreign Service or other international programs.