It’s early on a cold Sunday morning in Madrid. We join a group assembling on the street, half Spaniards, half Anglos. We’ll soon board a bus to an isolated hotel perched at the edge of the Gredos Mountains. We’re about to embark on an incredible journey.
Our six-day journey:
- begins with a group of strangers,
- winds through tentative and sometimes stumbling conversations,
- is accented by challenging, but always fun, communication exercises,
- and, finishes with a united team that achieved a common and worthwhile goal.
We were volunteers at a week-long VaughanTown English-language program. Vaughan Language schools offer many programs each year that are opportunities for native Spaniards who are learning English to practice speaking and listening to native English speakers with accents from around the world.
As a volunteer, our only responsibility was going to be to speak, converse, and talk – in English. No teaching or corrections, unless requested. And Spanish would be absolutely forbidden.
We Spent Our Days Talking and Laughing (A Lot)
We spent most of our time in one-on-one conversations with the Spanish participants. We talked about all sorts of interesting things ranging from personal and career goals to life philosophies, family, interests, and travel. On the last day we compared national holiday traditions because, truth be told, everyone was tired, it was Christmas, and it was easy. The only topics that we were advised to avoid were religion and politics.
In this particular group of students everyone was learning English for their profession. Their professional backgrounds included: IT, law, biotech, marketing, sales, hospitality, hospital management, TV and film production management, as well as software and app design. That gave us a lot to talk about.
A Well Designed Program
Long before the end of the week, we were thoroughly impressed by the care and professionalism of the Vaughan staff who shepherded us through our week at Gredos. Fernando, the program director handled all of the daily schedules and smoothed over even the smallest glitch that came up. Our master of ceremonies, Alba, guided us through a carefully considered progression of activities that kept us active, laughing, and fully engaged for 12 or more hours every day. If anyone from Vaughan Language School is reading this post, we recommend you give these two charming people a big raise.
So What Did We Do All Week?
If you decide to volunteer for VaughanTown don’t go expecting a free spa week. We spent 12 to 14 hours every day involved with the program. Hours and hours of one-on-one conversations, group activities, meal times, and even after dinner for the entertainment hour(s).
Here’s a summary of what we did during our week…
Alba used some of the best team building exercises we have experienced. Susan loved the one where teams were assigned to recreate a famous painting, advertisement, and movie scene. The groups captured pictures of their version and downloaded the original image. The pictures from all the teams were combined in a video montage that kept us laughing for days. Do you know how hard it is to scramble for props in a hotel lobby with a one hour deadline?
Role playing was a big part of our days too. The framework of skits, mock conference calls, and mock telephone calls were used to make practice seem real. The Spanish participants were interviewed by the press, had to speak to a “police officer” to report a mugging, and had to contend with a good friend who had crashed their beloved car. We Anglos, played the reporter, police officer, or other roles. It took all of our improv skills to keep up with them. Sometimes, the better actor did the better job, not just the better English speaker.
Our time together included three meals a day and one of the first opportunities to get to know the other Anglos. We always sat at tables of four or six evenly split between Spaniards and Anglos.
Breakfast was always plentiful and served buffet-style. Lunch and dinner were three course meals with wine. On the final day, a Friday, we had a little tapas party before we got on the bus for the ride back to Madrid.
The after-dinner social time is completely optional, if you want you can spend the time in your room “alone….. in the dark.” But chances are you’ll want to share the laughs and fun like we did, even though it was well past our normal bedtime.
One on Ones
The skits and group activities were a lot of fun, but we spent the majority of our time, at least four hours a day, in one-on-one conversations. That’s where we all really got to know one another.
If we needed help to start the conversation we could always cover the phrasal verb or the idiom assigned to each conversation session. Sometimes we covered it, sometimes we didn’t.
Most of us took advantage of the walkable grounds and surrounding countryside for ambling during our conversations. The lovely hotel lobby was always available and appreciated when the weather turned a bit rainy.
Finally, the Presentations
Throughout the week Alba led us through many exercises designed to desensitize us to getting up in front of the others. This is especially important because the final challenge for each of the Spaniards was to give a 5 or 10 minute presentation in English to the rest of us.
We’ve all read that public speaking is among the most debilitating fears out there.
Now just imagine you’re in front of an audience. Your heart is pounding through your chest. They expect you to be engaging and articulate in a foreign language!
But when you look out, everyone you see has already shared hours of their time with you. Each of them is already your friend. They’re on your side. They want you to do your best.
Their confidence in you fills the room. It inspires you and then, for the first time in your life in a language that isn’t yours, you offer your new friends a present(ation) on a topic that you personally interpreted, a presentation that you wrote yourself, a presentation that’s deeply personal, and….. wow they love it.
Trust, respect, admiration, and yes, even a little courage -- that’s what we had the privilege to witness at the culmination of our six-day journey. We’d evolved from a group of strangers into a band of buddies.
How to Volunteer for a VaughanTown
Grupo Vaughan offers English language classes for adults and children. Native English speaking volunteers are used to help their students learn to hear and speak English.
Because they want volunteers with a variety of English speaking accents, people come from all over the world to participate. You begin by completing an application answering key questions about yourself and how you think you’ll contribute to the program. Then you can choose up to three open trainings that you would be willing and able to attend. If your requests and your profile fit the needs of the program, you may be invited to attend. Nothing is final until they have confirmation of your travel arrangements and know that you are committed.
Week-long (Sunday to Friday) programs keep volunteers involved for a 12 hour day, from 9 am to 9 pm but also include an all important siesta. Volunteer accommodations and meals are included but transportation to Madrid is at the expense of the volunteer.
You can find out more at the Vaughan Volunteer Website
Jamie Wyant is a retired American living in Spain. After a multifaceted career ranging from ecosystem science to digital marketing, he moved to Valencia in 2017 with his wife, Susan, and their senior pets. He writes about the joys and tribulations of living overseas. Jamie also manages the technical aspects of GentleCycle.net