Volunteering at Vaughan Town in Spain: A Cultural Experience

by Nora on July 12, 2010

As I sit on the bus departing from the old restored town of Valdelavilla for the second of my two weeks of volunteering in Spain, I am very sad. But then I reflect on the dozens of new friends I have all over the world; I imagine how and when we’ll see each other again, and I’m energized and excited.

my digs in Valdelavilla

A few years ago, I read an article online about how I could have an all-expenses paid trip in Spain, in exchange for simply conversing in English with Spaniards who want to improve their conversational English skills. I wasn’t sure it was a legitimate opportunity (it seemed too good to be true), but I bookmarked it anyway, figuring I could investigate it when I eventually made it to Spain to visit Madrid and beyond.

So in planning my European trip, I knew that Madrid would be my first port of call so I could check out this volunteer opportunity.


VaughanTown Overview

Vaughan Town lived up to its reputation and word, and is indeed a legitimate volunteer experience. Although it’s not exactly too good to be true (you certainly earn your keep), it’s one of the most rewarding cultural experiences I could have possibly hoped for in Spain.

And I didn’t even get to speak a word of Spanish.

The program is paid for mainly by Spanish companies who send their employees on a week-long “retreat” to improve their English skills. English is an important part of business in Spain, and many companies are willing to pay top dollar to help their employees become more fluent. Other Spanish attendees include individuals, and some post-secondary school programs that incorporate it into their curriculum.

Thus, the English-speaking volunteers attend the program for free, their value inherent simply in being willing and able to dedicate a week to chatting in English with the program participants.


Getting There

After meeting some of the “Anglos” (as we’re referred to throughout the week) at a tapas reception on Saturday night in Madrid, we are loaded onto a bus on Sunday morning. Although Vaughan Town has a few locations outside of Madrid, both of my volunteer weeks take place at Valdelavilla, which I’ll discuss shortly. Although most of the people on the bus are Anglos, a few Spaniards who live in Madrid also tag along for the ride.

our lunch stop

our lunch stop

After a four hour drive and a stop for lunch in an old Spanish town, we arrive at Valdelavilla. We sit through an orientation session where we officially meet the week’s Master of Ceremonies (Greg), we each introduce ourselves, and learn what the week holds in store for us.

“We don’t have a lot of rules here,” Greg starts, “but we do have one that we’re quite serious about: No Spanish allowed! If we overhear you speaking in Spanish, you’ll get a warning. If we hear you do it again, you’ll be asked to leave. We mean it! You’re all here to speak in English, and all the Spaniards have enough English skills to get by. Use it and improve it!”

With this point of seriousness and the orientation out of the way, we meander down through the old village to the reception building and check into our rooms.

Valdelavilla "main street"


Valdelavilla

Valdelavilla from a distance

Valdelavilla is a tiny Spanish town in northern Spain (near Soria) that was abandoned in the 1960s due to changing demographics and industry, and restored in the 90’s. It is nestled at the base of a green mountainous valley, 2kms vertically below the nearest road to anywhere. Although there is a WiFi connection (albeit only available in a small range and at less than admirable speeds), cell phones cease to work about 2/3 of the way down the road into the village. The lack of technology adds to the ambiance; Valdelavilla is isolated, charming, and stunningly beautiful.

As participants of the Vaughan Town program, we pretty much take over the town. When Vaughan Town doesn’t use the village, it is rented out for weddings, corporate retreats, and private functions. I believe individuals can also visit for a meal, a walk, or an overnight stay as well.

Accommodation is provided in the restored village houses, and in most cases up to five people are put up in each house, each person receiving their own room with ensuite bathroom. Although the amenities are rustic and at times a touch impractical (for example there is many a doorway and shower stall that is less than five feet tall!), it adds to the overall charm, as you can feel the history that prevails in Valdelavilla.

the view from my room

the view from my room

As a side note, the other VaughanTown site is held in a very different location, at a large hotel that is part of a larger fully operational Spanish town. Each location has its own flavour and tone. Although I only have one frame of reference in the Valdelavilla experience, I also love it through and through.


Each Day’s Events

The Anglos are a varied group; an intentional mix of ages, accents, and backgrounds. This is intended to expose the Spaniards a wide variety of conversation styles and sounds, improving their global English skills.

And as I said earlier, the Anglos (English-speaking volunteers) earn their keep on the program, with a busy schedule and lots of talking.

Breakfast begins at 9am, as does the conversation. We are instructed to ensure that there is an equal mix of Anglos and Spaniards at each table during meals, and we mix and match at will.

mealtime

At 10am, we begin the “one-to-ones”. The program coordinator creates a schedule each day that pairs off the Anglos and Spaniards each hour for – you got it – English conversation. We can talk about anything under the sun, although we are cautioned against religion, politics, and the standard “what do you do, where do you do it” cocktail chat. I initially worry what I could possibly talk about with so many different people each hour, but almost never find dead air during the one-to-one sessions. In fact, an hour is a perfect amount of time to have a well-rounded conversation (often accompanied by a walk on the surrounding trails) before moving on to a new person and different conversation.

After four hours of one-to-one chatting, lunch is served at 2pm. Although for the Anglos this initially seems to be very late, it is the Spanish norm, and is a routine we all slip into fairly quickly.

Lunch is a three-course meal which normally lasts about an hour and a half, and then it’s siesta time! We have free time until 5pm, which many people use in different ways: catching up on work, surfing the internet, sleeping, walking, playing ball, and even (more) chatting.

At 5pm we reconvene for three more hours of one-to-one sessions before attending a performance at 8pm. Each night’s performance is coordinated and directed by our fearless master of ceremonies, and the cast members are none other than us! Entertainment ranges from skits that Greg has dredged up from his days as a director (participants getting time each day to rehearse in lieu of doing one-to-ones), to videos, to individual participants strutting their stuff – singing, reciting poetry, telling jokes, etc.

Not surprisingly with my acting background, I am a willing participant in the skits, and I even sing a few songs for (and at the request of) the audience.

one of the skits I perform in

one of the skits I perform in

Dinner is served at 9pm each day. Again although it seems incredibly late for most Anglos, it is actually a touch early for many Spaniards! Three more courses of delicious food later, we roll out of the dining room around 10:30pm.


As the Week Rolls By

At the beginning of the week, many of us are exhausted by the time dinner finishes, and most retire to their rooms after dinner. The days are intense and long especially for the Spaniards, with a full schedule and constant inner attention to translating Spanish to English. The Anglos have it a little easier; receiving a periodic hour of free time now and then (since there are about 17 Anglos and 15 Spaniards) and speaking in their native tongue. But the Spaniards are thrown into the fire to learn and improve their English – and that they do.

By the time Wednesday rolls around, we are all over the initial hump and are gaining our second wind. The Spaniards are more relaxed in their English, and find they are thinking less about what they have to say. This paves the way for even more interesting and fun conversations about just about anything under the sun. During my one-on-ones we speak about things like philosophy, literature, life in the South of Spain, family practices, relationships, geography, and even cheesy pick-up lines.

Friendships are also starting to develop, and the nights are getting progressively longer. More and more people stay up after dinner to play cards, listen to music, drink, and even dance. Depending on the group, there are usually a few party animals burning the midnight oil by taking the party to their house after the bar closes at midnight.

By Thursday night, we are geared up for a full party after dinner, complete with a special Quemada ceremony (a Spanish flaming drink that comes with a ritual to scare away bad spirits), music, and dancing. Even some of the village staff emerges from the kitchen and offices to join in the festivities.

the Quemada

the Quemada

dancing the night away

dancing the night away

By Friday morning, we arrive at a late breakfast a little bleary eyed, but still speaking English enthusiastically. We do a few more one-to-ones before having an early lunch and piling back on the bus for the drive back to Madrid.

Hugs and kisses are exchanged all around, emails and pictures promised, and often places to stay offered. In fact, after my first week of volunteering, I traveled with some of the Anglos to Toledo for a day trip, before enjoying the gracious hospitality of one of the Spaniards for the next week! After my second week of volunteering with Vaughan Town, I again was offered a place to stay for a night before heading to the airport for an early flight.


The Cultural Experience

Although I initially balked at my decision to focus two of my three weeks in Spain on this volunteer program where I was isolated and not even able to speak in Spanish, I found it to be one of the most rewarding cultural experiences I could possibly have asked for.

Under no other circumstances could I possibly have met so many different Spaniards from all over the country, learned about their lives, and been invited into their homes and hearts. Staying in a hostel, I would never have met any of these people, much less had so many meaningful one-to-one conversations with them.

Even meeting so many Anglos from all over the world – I now have friends in London, Ireland, South Africa, and the States, to name just a few places. And I will be seeing many of these people again – some soon, some later.

I love Spain as a country, and have vowed to come back as soon as possible. And part of my Spanish travel itinerary – without a doubt – will be to return to Valdelavilla for some more volunteering with Vaughan Town.


If you are interested in becoming a volunteer with Vaughan Town, visit this site to submit an application.

 

 

 

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Brooke Herron January 18, 2016 at 8:23 am

Hi Nora,

I’ve done both Vaughan Town and Diverbo/Pueblo Ingles (similar program in Spain) as well as similar program Angloville in Poland but have been searching for similar programs in other countries like France or Portugal. Do you know of any other than these guys? My intense research has wielded not many results other than a program in China and the one in Argentina. Travel costs make those not of interest to me..

I’m actually writing a series of articles on this process right now

thanks in Advance!

Brooke

Reply

Nora Dunn January 18, 2016 at 12:44 pm

Hi Brooke,
I don’t know of any other similar programs, but I’m curious to see what you find! Looking forward to reading your post…please post a link to it here once it’s published! 🙂

Reply

Brooke Herron February 2, 2016 at 6:36 am

Hi Nora!

I’m at my second Vaughantown as I type, and have written a few posts about these programs on my blog (here’s one link to a post I did about the Poland program I volunteered at: http://www.adifferentkindoftravel.com/poland-ill-miss-you/ )

but also will have an article being published soon in a travel publication (sort of an overall view of doing these programs as a solo traveler in Europe )

I found references to a program in Argentina and in China for similar programs but need to do further research to find out more specific details about what’s included/how they work, etc

more soon!

P.S. I have heard some great stories about you at Vaughan town with your tiny backpack, yet always looking amazing (from the MC’s….) hahahah what a small world

Reply

Nora February 2, 2016 at 9:04 am

Hi Brooke,
I can’t believe they STILL remember me at Vaughan Town! I’ve had the best of intentions about returning, but it just hasn’t come together yet. One of these days – hopefully!
Unfortunately I can’t seem to load your link (welcome to Peru – it’s a random internet situation at best!), but I’ll keep trying.
Please give my regards to the crew at Vaughan Town!

Reply

Brooke Herron February 28, 2016 at 3:46 am

Hi Nora,

here’s a link to the post I wrote about Immersion Programs:

http://www.adifferentkindoftravel.com/free-four-star-accommodation-and-meals-in-europe-in-exchange-for-speaking-english/

It’s also published on Hubpages, but to be quite honest I think I”m going to ask them to take it down since they don’t publicize at all, don’t allow links to your site, and don’t pay (I had offers to publish it elsewhere for pay but couldn’t once it was on their site)

Reply

Nora March 1, 2016 at 1:44 pm

Hi Brooke,
I don’t know much about Hubpages, but given your description it seems like it’s not worthwhile. Strangely enough, I can’t load any pages on your site, including the links you gave me above. Hopefully it’s my connection, and I’ll be able to read your article – which I’m quite interested in – shortly.

Reply

Brooke Herron March 2, 2016 at 4:35 am

Hi Nora,

hmm… don’t know why! my link works on our end here. hahah Peruvian wifi must be as dubious as italian….

B

Reply

Anya Kay April 4, 2016 at 11:13 pm

Hi Nora,

I am soooo glad I found your website, there is so much useful information here! I am now applying for the same program and can’t wait when I actually go!
I wanted to ask if you can recommend any (literally any) volunteering or working opportunities that would be available in Central or South America. I found a few on my own, but don’t feel 100% confident about those companies. I would be so grateful for any type of feedback.

Thank you much!
Anya

Reply

Nora April 5, 2016 at 9:57 am

Hi Anya,
Welcome! 🙂
Other than house-sitting, I haven’t done any volunteer/work-trade gigs in Central/South America. I’ve conversed with a few people who have, with varying degrees of success. Generally speaking, the cost of living/accommodation is low enough to begin with that the value received for volunteering in trade for it is somewhat diminished. You might want to check out these posts for more on this topic: http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2013/11/financial-travel-tip-101-best-countries-to-volunteer-in-trade-for-free-accommodation/
http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2013/12/a-cautionary-tale-volunteering-free-accommodation/

However once you arrive to your destination(s) in Latin America, you might find informal opportunities to be of service through word of mouth.
To apply more of a science to it, here are some sites you can check out to explore volunteer opportunities:
http://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/2013/05/financial-travel-tip-80-free-accommodation-with-volunteering/

Hope this helps!

Reply

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