Updated June 2018, with links to similar programs in other European Countries!
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.
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.
Which of course, I did.
Vaughan Town 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. (See also: How to Become Fluent in Spanish – and Other Languages)
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.
Click here to learn about other ways to get free accommodation around the world.
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 in Spain, both of my volunteer weeks take place at Valdelavilla (four hours from Madrid), 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.
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.
2018 Update: Valdelavilla is no longer in operation. However, Vaughan Town – along with a collection of other similar programs mentioned at the end of this article – often operates in similar locations; off the beaten track, and relatively isolated to create a truly English-immersive environment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 – true locals, 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 do some more volunteering.
How/Where to Volunteer in Spain, and Other European Countries
Since the original writing of this post (2010), other English Immersion programs have become available in a variety of countries around Europe.
The offering is very similar; English-speaking volunteers get free accommodation and meals in trade for their conversational English services. What differs is the location, amenities, whether or not you will be required to share a room, and length of program. Here’s a summary:
Vaughan Town – Operates 6 day programs in a few different locations throughout Spain. Accommodation (own room), meals, and wine are included for volunteers. Shorter programs may be available to volunteers who are already in the country.
Diverbo – Operates 6-8 day programs out of a few different locations in Spain and Germany. Accommodation (occasionally shared), meals, and wine are included. And, if you’d like to turn the tables and improve your Spanish, Diverbo has Pueblo Español, who offers 4-8 day immersion programs for people wanting to learn Spanish (at a cost).
Angloville – Offers 3-11 day programs in Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Romania, Malta, England, and Ireland. Accommodation is shared and wine is not included. Many volunteers stay on for multiple programs, extending their overall volunteer time to an average of 4-8 weeks. If you’re interested in teaching English, they have a TEFL Scholarship program that helps you earn your TEFL designation. If you’re interested in working with kids and teens, there are also programs available for that (entailing a lengthier application process including criminal record check).