If you’ve done your research, then you know Mérida isn’t another beach town on the Yucatan Peninsula. As rich a town culturally as one can find in the Americas, Mérida is home to many of Mexico’s indigenous populations, including descendants of the Maya.
In recent years, Mérida has experienced economic growth, but the disparity between rich and poor is still dramatic. Extreme poverty is everywhere, especially among the large indigenous population. The opportunities to advance are slim for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. UBELONG, our partner on the ground in Mexico, specializes in providing support to these groups.
When you volunteer in Mexico, you have many opportunities, including teaching, caring for children and working in conservation. To tell you more about it, we sat down for a Q+A with Martina & Leo, UBELONG’s volunteer coordinators on the ground in Mérida, Mexico.
UnCollege: What inspired you to start a UBELONG location in Mérida?
Martina + Leo: Mexico is a country of so much culture. It's a place with a lot of poverty and people with different needs and there's a lot to be done and help with, but at the same time Mexico has so many things to offer, like getting to know its people, food, culture - the combination of helping others and immerse into the culture was something that inspired us to start this program.
What is the best part of your job?
On the one side the best part is helping new volunteers with their process of growth, loosing all the fears and immersing into their projects. We can see their impact, how they truly help people in and around Merida as well as start becoming part of a big family. On the other side we enjoy seeing changes in the projects, improvements in people's lives and the impact the volunteers have.
What is your favorite story about a volunteer who worked with your organization?
We have so many! There was a volunteer named Alison who volunteered in Merida for six weeks. After her placement she went back to the United States, and a couple of months later she came back with her mom and a suitcase full of things for the kids. She even ended up sponsoring a little girl. They were so happy!
What is your favorite thing about the people in Mérida?
The people are so kind and happy. They open their hearts and make you feel like part of their family and they really appreciate the help volunteers provide.
What is your favorite thing to do in Mérida?
Mérida is a very cultural city and there are different events every day. We like to try all the cafes around, join the bike rides through the city, see the dances and the Sunday markets.
What is the longest time a volunteer has stayed with you?
6 months and many have come back for second stays.
Where is the farthest place a volunteer has come from?
We have had people from Taiwan, Australia, China. It’s a fun mix!
What is one piece of advice you have for volunteers coming to your organization?
Come with no expectations, be flexible and open-minded! This is a once in a lifetime experience that is going to make you step out of your comfort zone. You'll get to help and meet great people, feel immerse into the culture and have some fun exploring around.
What type of volunteer thrives the most at your organization?
The people that have an open mind and come with an attitude of hands-on service. Those who understand that they are coming to serve and not to be served.
What surprises volunteers the most when they get here (i.e. what do they unexpectedly love)?
They are surprised to see how safe the city is and how many things it has to offer. I think when you research Mérida it’s hard to really discover how special it is. You need to visit and experience it.
What's one fact everyone in the world should know about Merida?
Try cochinita pibil and marquesitas :)