When was the last time you found yourself out of your comfort zone? When did you last push yourself and end up having one of the best experiences of your life? This is what happened to Luis Hernandez, a 20 year old Londoner whose parents had emigrated from Chile.

Currently, Luis works as a freelance graphic designer, but a couple of years ago he was going through difficult times. “I was lost; didn’t know what to do with my life so began to go out with the wrong crowd and do bad things”, he reveals.

Luis’ mum knew her son needed a little push; a radical experience that would make him change his outlook on life. It was then that she came across Progressio International Citizen Service (ICS) and decided to enrol Luis in a volunteering programme in El Salvador. “Progressio what…?” asked Luis surprised. Volunteering in a developing country was an idea that had never crossed his mind. “Imagine – 10 weeks in an unknown country, living with absolute strangers… it did sound like a punishment”.

Despite his initial doubts, Luis flew to El Salvador along with a group of UK volunteers. “When I arrived in El Salvador I was overwhelmed by the poverty, prostitution on the streets and having to live with people I had just met. However, my fears vanished when we settled in Chalatenango, a rural village in the North of the country”, he explains.

In Chalatenango Luis and his team worked with a youth centre and decided to involve the local youth in an art project. “We created two big murals. On one of the walls we painted about the consequences of not taking care of our environment and how the Earth is suffering. The other mural represented a greener world where everyone cared about Mother Nature. The best part of this project was the connections we made with the community. Art is a fun way to engage with people; it allowed us to meet many of the kids in the village and they helped us design and paint the murals. I especially remember Josue, a 17 year old who collaborated with us during the whole project. He opened the doors to the community; he guided us among the people and the culture. He took us to the mountains, where we met a historian who taught us everything about the Salvadorian Civil War and even showed us the trenches. “Our group became very close to the community and I would say that was one of the greatest achievements for us”.

The group also worked in San Salvador, the capital city, where they got involved with young people who were in danger of exclusion. “I am good at drawing and at graffiti, so I decided to run a street art workshop to engage with the local youth and keep them away from the streets. San Salvador is a dangerous city and gang crime is widespread, so these workshops helped us raise awareness of these issues, bonding with the community and keeping some of the young people out of trouble. I still have connections with some of them after two years and speak to them through Facebook”, says Luis proudly.

Progressio ICS was a wake-up call for Luis. “My experience as a volunteer made me appreciate things I wouldn’t really value in the UK. We take many things for granted here, but there’re many people out there struggling every day. Progressio ICS gave me new thoughts and ideas and made me realise how materialistic we are in the UK and helped me devalue things that are not basic human needs”.

“Volunteering with Progressio ICS is such a great eye opener and it is a brilliant way to help young people who are stuck or have lost their sense of direction. I definitely recommend it! Also it’s the perfect opportunity for those who are learning or already speak Spanish. My family is from Chile, so I speak a bit of Spanish. Besides all the projects I did with Progressio, I also used my language skills and interpreted conversations between the UK volunteers and the organisations we were working with”.

After completing Progressio ICS, Luis went straight back to education. “I was motivated by what I had experienced so I enrolled in an art course at college and graduated with distinction. Although volunteering may seem mad initially and requires you to adapt mentally and physically, I have never felt as inspired as I was during the 10 weeks I shared with my community in El Salvador. I thank Progressio and all the volunteers I found along my way – interesting and friendly people, keen to make changes in the lives of others. Thanks everyone, you have touched my soul”.

Written by Carlos Velázquez / Interviewee Luis Hernández Progressio ICS returned volunteer.