A few weeks ago, whilst attending pre-departure training in the UK, I had to make a decision on which community I wanted to work with. On paper, Valle de San Antonio was more urban, had actual pavements made of cement, a park with free Wi-Fi and the school, Almilcar Calderón, has 400 children. San Benito is the rural younger sibling, no internet, dirt roads, nothing to do and the school, Arely Azucena, only has 80 children. The decision was easy; #letsgotoSanBenito. 

Having seen both locations during the Team Leader in-country training, I knew San Benito was the right choice for me. The school has three classrooms, which are shared by the six grades that are taught there. The gardens, murals and children’s play areas, which first attract your attention when entering the school, have all been installed by previous Progressio ICS volunteers. I had a meeting with all three of the teachers that work here and with representatives of community organisations, all of which were grateful for everything that had been done previously and were happy to offer support with anything we would need. The highlight of this initial meeting, aside from the head of the Parents’ Association freshly baking quesadillas for us, was the Headmistress instantly handing the school keys to me, which was an act of trust to make their school a better place. 

This level of support isn’t just based around the school; it reaches out across to the whole community. The morning commute consists of “hola”, “buenos días” and “qué ondas” from every person we pass. Arriving to work results in hugs, waves and children screaming your name. Before long, we were even featured on local TV (hello to all my channel 28 VillaMixta fans). The community is supporting us and we’ve already seen a massive increase in the number of people attending our Saturday community English classes. Zumba classes have been a success and events like Community Coffee and a Community Sports Day have been really well supported. The hope is that by working with the community in everything that we do, we can make the school the social heart of San Benito. 

Aside from this, San Benito is beautiful. We are surrounded by spectacular mountains that leave us in awe every time we walk back from work. There is a peacefulness here that is complemented by open spaces. There is so little air pollution here that you can see the stars on cloudless nights and my asthma has been the best it ever has. The serenity is echoed in our host home. Our host family have made us feel like part of their family and are such a pivotal support network away from our own families. I’ve spent many nights in the front porch, speaking, venting and exchanging ideas with my host parents. One thing I do wish we had are actual concrete roads, as with the rain, the roads turn into mud and just last week I may have completely fallen flat on my face, in view of the host family. 

The one thing I’ve never had to question here is the impact we are making in San Benito. Before Progressio ICS volunteers had arrived here, the school looked like a prison; a grey, breeze blocked school with barbed wire around the perimeter wall and no colour to be seen. The infrastructural changes that have been made around the school would be enough to make a long term impact but by delivering extracurricular clubs in English, Art, Discovery, Football and Glee, children are beginning to want to come to school and stay in school. Escuela Arely Azucena is now becoming a creative centre, where a child’s imagination can flourish. 

It would be easy to spend time thinking about everything you miss from home whilst being on an ICS placement, but with the kindness and support shown by our national volunteers, our host families and the community we live in, I feel settled into San Benito life. What we lack in things to do, we fill with spending time with each other and getting to know everyone around us, knowing that the actions we take will leave an impact in the hearts of this incredible community. 

Written by ICS Team Leader Gagan Aggarwal