San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

‘Voluntourists’ Make Best of Recession

SAN JUAN DEL SUR – News of the declining worldwide economy is everywhere. And for North American college students who are either recently graduated or about to, the constant media-battering of how bleak job prospects are has given many young potential employees reason to look abroad for an alternative work experience.

In Nicaragua, a country known for its poverty and staggering underdevelopment, opportunities are abundant to gain work experience in a foreign country – a valuable asset on any resume in today’s global economy.

So many people are taking advantage of the low cost of living here to “ride out” the recession at home while gaining experience and having a good time in the process.

“After I graduated in January, I was basically told by my university advisors that there were pretty much no immediate jobs for a Biology degree. So I thought going abroad and volunteering with an environmental group for a while would be a good way to make my resume stand out … and have some fun, too,” said recent university graduate Tezra Jones, 23, of Alberta, Canada Jones’ idea of combining work and sun is reflective of many “voluntourists” in the San Juan del Sur area. With the famous beaches and lively nightlife that San Juan del Sur has to offer, as well as the low cost of living, San Juan del Sur has become an entertaining and economically reasonable hotspot for the new trend of volunteering and tourism.

Many teach English to adults or basic reading skills to children, while others have focused on other goodwill activities that they later include on their resumes as “professional” experience in an international setting.

Kathy Jennings, a nursing student from Oregon, is volunteering at San Juan del Sur’s under-served Centro de Salud to help local patients while gaining hands-on experience and getting valuable practice in the Spanish language – a highly marketable skill set in U.S. hospitals serving growing Hispanic populations.

“This whole experience is something that just can’t be learned in school,” Jennings said. “Being forced to speak Spanish and making do with limited means I think has really made me a much more practical and able medical professional in the United States.”

Political motives are also a determining factor for why many young people are choosing to come to Nicaragua. Young idealists who feel strongly about either socialist or capitalist thought feel this is a key moment to help in the rebuilding of a nation’s struggling economy and the shaping of its political future.

Hank Livutz, a recent graduate of New York State University of Plattsburgh who is now volunteering for Nica Verde, an environmentally-conscious construction firm aimed at building and selling green-friendly properties to foreigners, is an example of voluntourists helping to advocate a more capitalist-centered approach to revitalizing Nicaragua.

“Nicaragua’s improvement won’t come from protected markets or bus donations from Russia,” he said. “Prosperity will only come from free enterprise, and we’re helping to make Nicaragua a more attractive place to travel to and live in, which will help bring wealth and create jobs.”

Political atonement is also strong motivation for many volunteers. Katy and George Lacroix, a married couple from Maine who closed their home-construction business back home in the face of the U.S. housing crisis, have just moved to the area to start a free school for San Juan-area residents to learn English and carpentry.

“I remember the ‘80’s and I hated the way the Reagan administration handled Nicaragua,” George said. “And I don’t personally take responsibility for Reagan’s actions, of course, but I still feel that, as an American, it’s a duty of mine to try to give something back to the Nicaraguan people after what my government did – not only in the 80’s, but for long before that as well.”

Through teaching English and carpentry skills, the Lacroixs hope that locals will be able to improve their overall well-being by benefiting financially from the tourism and construction trade.

“We are really worried that, despite the increase in foreigners coming to visit and live in the area, the locals will miss out on the increase in wealth,” Katy said. “We don’t want a new kind of imperialism to occur – a more dangerous kind because it isn’t so obvious. So we want to make sure that locals can benefit and this is the only thing we can do.”

From gaining work-experience when professional work is hard to come by, to righting past political wrongs, Nicaragua appears to be gaining – at least in specific instances – from the lack of economic opportunity caused by the current U.S. recession.

The voluntourists who are trekking to San Juan del Sur and other communities bring not only their goodwill and assistance, but their dollars to eat, sleep, and have fun. But there’s also a downside.

The recession also means there are fewer overall tourists, and many development projects have been put on hold as the real estate market bottoms out. Also, many recent graduates who are enthusiastic about volunteering are finding they don’t have the funds to stay here working for low-or-no-pay jobs.

“I was planning on being down here for a few months until things picked up back home,” said Hank Livutz. “But my parents are being hit pretty hard by what’s going on, so I may have to go back home and just settle for whatever. They want me to have the experience, but this experience is costing them – so I might need to do what I need to do.”

However, in some industries, especially in the medical field, the future looks brighter.

“I’m told that there’s going to be an increase in medical spending in the United States, so I think that my experience in Nicaragua and especially my exposure to the Spanish language will really help me get employed back home,” Kathy Jennings said.

Still other voluntourists are picking up other skills they couldn’t get in the classroom.

“I’m a way better surfer now than I was a year ago,” said Tezra Jones, who spends every weekend riding the waves of Playa Maderas.


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