Written by Elinor Aspegren
Everyone has heard the quote “Be the change you want to see in the world,” but most people don’t know how to complete that challenge in high school. Junior Rachel Gates, however, found a way to improve the world and herself through a seven-week venture in Paraguay.
Gates got to go to Paraguay through Amigos de Las Amerícas, a nonprofit, non-government funded program that encourages cross cultural exchange, community development, and youth leadership. In Paraguay, Gates worked with a governmental organization called Servicio Nacional de Saneamiento Ambiental, an organization for public health. She lived with a host family in Yaguarón Yurú. “It wasn’t what you would consider traditional poverty,” she said, detailing her host’s house that had hot water, electricity and cable television. There were various forms of poverty, so much so that you couldn’t put a poverty label on the town. “I think it’s hard to explain the poverty because it depends on the person,” Gates said.
Some of the most important people to Gates were her host family. She lived with a single mother and three children, who helped her with her with her projects in the community. “One of my best memories was selling empanadas with them to fundraise for one of our many projects,” she said. Her host mother taught her the basics of the household, like maintaining money. Gates keeps in close contact with her host brother Nickolaz, and developed a very close relationship with her Amigos partner, Maria. “If I had to pick who could most closely understand my feelings about the trip, it would be my host partner,” she said. Gates will visit her in the coming year in Marin, where she goes to school.
Gates participated in two projects while she was in Yaguarón Yurú. She helped facilitate the building of 14 latrines in Paraguarí for her project with SENASA. For her community project, Gates took to mind what the problems were in Paraguay. “It rains all the time in Paraguay, so basically when it rains the streets get flooded,” she said. Because of this need, she helped build a bridge in the community to get to the main road and other parts of town. The poverty she saw and the projects she participated in taught her how much she takes for granted in the United States. “Moving forward, I’m going to try to be less wasteful,” she said.
One of her biggest challenges was the language barrier in Paraguay. “Spanish wasn’t that big of a problem, though it was frustrating at times; the native dialect, Guaraní, was the hardest thing to deal with because it hindered altogether from communicating with some people,” Gates said. Overall, however, her Spanish has improved significantly. “My conversational Spanish is definitely better, and I can write better than I could previously,” she said. She plans to use her new Spanish skills this year as she goes into AP Spanish Language.
Gates says that her experience taught her to be more responsible and mature. She credits Amigos with teaching her that she holds the power to change the world, not just wait until she is older to make a change. “Amigos doesn’t change you, but Amigos gives you the opportunity to change,” one of Gates’ mentors said to her on the final day. From supervising the creation of 14 latrines in her community to learning how to run a household from her host mother, Gates learned about herself, the culture of Paraguay, and the rest of the world.