Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Tour Memories

By Leslie Gray, Tour Alumnus

Eight of us from cities across the US decided to meet in Oaxaca to renew old friendships and explore the region. Most of us had some working facility with Spanish and none of us had been to Oaxaca before. We heard about the En Vía tour from our advance man on the ground in Oaxaca who had come two weeks early to study Spanish at Instituto Cultural Oaxaca and had heard Emily’s presentation. Our like-minded group all wanted in, and we arranged the tour for our second day in Oaxaca.

Elizabeth and Shelley were our guides that day and we arrived in Teotitlán in time for lunch at the restaurant of Concepción who with her two partners was applying for her third En Vía loan. The tlayudas were outstanding, and after lunch Concepción explained how her loans had made it possible for her to expand her business and to send her children to school.

The next stop was at the church in Teotitlán. The church is such a charming setting set against the hills. We had the feeling that we were gaining a view of village life that few tourists get in rural Mexico. The fresh flowers that adorned all the chapel altars showed a village proud of its church and its place in their community. We learned that the church had been built on the ruins of an old Zapotec pilgrimage site and many of the old Zapotec designs were preserved amid the stucco covering. These were designs that we would see repeated in many of the weavings that day.

Our first weaver was Eulalia who met us in the churchyard. After a short van ride into the hills above Teotitlán she welcomed our group into her home and became our first teacher about dyeing and weaving. We learned that wool from a six-month old lamb has just the right amount of lanolin to make the carding process easier. We learned about all the dyes necessary to make these weavings in the traditional way from pomegranate skins used to make yellow to the dried up parasite worm, cochinilla, used to make the brilliant reds. Eulalia practiced some of her English on us that she had learned from her En Vía English classes to explain about the weaving process. All of us were taken with her independence and skill as a weaver, and one couple in our party went home the proud owner of a Eulalia original.

When our tour was done, we had visited the businesses of 6 women, two groups of three. Their stories revealed to us how just a small loan can go a long way toward empowering these women and making a difference in the lives of their families and their communities. On our last night we sat around reminiscing about the most memorable parts of our 10 days in Oaxaca. Many of our very best memories were of these hours we spent learning from the women of Teotitlán and our time together as friends was made all the richer by sharing this experience.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Volunteer Service Checklist

By Anni Kasari, Volunteer, Program Manager

The opportunity to make a difference through volunteer service is an incredible experience. There are lots of organisations in need, but sometimes it can be a challenge to find the perfect fit. When deciding to volunteer abroad, it is important to know as much as you can about an organization before committing your time or your money - you don’t want to fly across the world only to find the organisation doesn’t meet your expectations. So how do you find the perfect match?

Here are a few tips to help you decide whether a volunteering opportunity is right for you:

1. Define your goals. Volunteering is an investment of your time and money, so make sure you know what you will gain from the experience. Whether it is wanting to improve your resume, learn a new language, contribute to a good cause, or just take a break from your everyday life, ensure the position will give you just that. Getting direct experience with microfinance, learning more about development, and getting experience managing teams of people were all reasons behind my decision to volunteer with En Vía.

2. Measure your impact. As well as gaining from the experience on a personal level, it is also important to know what you are going to contribute to the project. One of the things that drew me to volunteering with En Via was that I knew I would have a lot of responsibility and that by having a lot of responsibility with such a new, growing organisation, I would be able to make a significant contribution to the program.

3. Know the job description. So you've found the perfect position in turtle conservation in
Costa Rica – before you pack your bags, be clear of what is expected of you both in terms of your responsibilities as well as time commitment. A perfect opportunity to enquire about this more specifically is during the interview, which is what I did.

4. Research the organisation. Who will you be working for and what are their values? Make
sure you know who the organisation is funded by and whether they make a profit. You don't want to be breaking your back for someone whose intentions aren't as good as yours. I knew En Vía's cause was genuine because 100% of the money received goes towards the microloans.

5. Inquire about the team. How many staff and other volunteers are there and who are they?
Are they people you think you will get along with? Will you be able to build personal and professional relationships with them? Will you be able to learn from them? Besides having formed great friendships with the En Vía team, I love getting to meet people from all walks of life on our tours.

6. Evaluate the costs. It may seem like all volunteer positions come with a big price tag, but it doesn't necessarily have to be the case. Define your budget and do your research. Make sure you know exactly how much you are paying: does the organisation charge volunteers a fee? Do you need to pay for transportation? Know what you are paying for and how big a part of the money goes to the organisation itself rather than intermediaries.

Volunteering with En Vía was perfect for me as they don't charge volunteers a fee, so it was well within my budget. After figuring out travel and living costs, I knew the money invested would be more than worth it in the long run.

Some other useful websites for finding low-cost or free volunteering opportunities are, and

I love En Via's volunteer program because it ticks all the boxes for me. It's a two-way thing that both En Vía and I benefit from, and that's the way it should be.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Let’s get down to business

By Shelley Tennyson, Volunteer

All day, prior to our first business development class with the women in Teotitlán, I had butterflies in my stomach.  Kevin Adler (another volunteer) and I had been preparing for this for several weeks.  We had met with Carlos, the En Vía director, first discussing our interest in doing the training, and second, discussing the research I had done on various training models for microfinance programs.  Carlos decided that we should invite 10 of the more experienced women in Teotitlán (those who had received 3 or more loans).  We decided that we would meet with them for just a few weeks at first, in order to gather information from them as to what kind of training they need in order to be more successful in their businesses.  We also wanted to get them to just talk about their businesses, so they could begin to help and support each other more.

We arrived at Enadina’s house a few minutes early, with a basic plan and a large pad of butcher paper.  The women began to arrive slowly.  At first we only had 5 of the 10 invited women, and thought that was pretty good considering this was a new idea and the women didn’t really know what to expect (and neither did we!).  Then a few more arrived and we had our full contingency.  But then a few more and a few more came, and luckily Enadina had plenty of chairs.  We’re not totally sure why the extra women showed up, but they certainly seemed eager to find out what we have to offer!

It helps to have years of teaching experience, because I felt transformed from scared novice to “Superteacher” as soon as I got up in front of the women, except that until now I had never actually taught in Spanish.  Kevin is a natural in front of a group, and has no trouble getting people to respond to a variety of questions.  One by one the women talked about their businesses, the long hours they all work, their difficulty in making enough money, the ideas that Carlos has given some of them to diversify from rug making.  We had barely begun to discuss the kinds of challenges that the women face in their businesses when the time was up.  Luckily, we have another week or two to accomplish this first phase of the training, and all of the women said they plan to come again next week.

As we were returning on the bus to Oaxaca, Kevin and I were all smiles.  For me, it was an incredible beginning to something I’ve been wanted to do for a long time.  If I can be a catalyst to help a group of women learn how to be better entrepreneurs, it will be a dream come true.  But then, that’s what En Vía is all about.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011


By Molly Fleming  - Volunteer, English Teacher

The woman’s voice was lost in the echo of four large groups of exuberant English students from Fundación En Vía’s bi-weekly classes in Teotitlán del Valle, Oaxaca.
The students had just finished their two hour class and were putting away books, chairs, flash cards, crayons and all the other accoutrement from the day’s lesson.
“Disculpe, son estas las clases de ingles? (Excuse me, are these the English classes?)

I turned to see who was speaking and saw a woman of about 30 peering at me shyly. 
“Yes!” I said to her enthusiastically in Spanish. “Are you interested in studying?”
“Not me, it’s for my son, Alejandro. He is eleven. He REALLY wants to learn English!

I smiled, remembering what it was like to be eleven and have “ganas” to learn a language.  Having grown up near the Tijuana border, I was bitten with the language bug after my first adventure to “the other side” and it has never stopped biting. Now, as a Spanish professor from Maui, Hawaii, on sabbatical in Oaxaca, I’m gaining many new insights about language acquisition and Oaxaca culture through my volunteer work in the En Vía English program. The students who attend range in age from eight to sixty, and their “ganas” to learn English takes on a wide variety of forms. Some of the older students come because they feel a pressing need to be able to communicate with potential English-speaking customers, while many of the younger students are eager to improve their skills in reading and writing as well as speaking and listening.

In the two months I have been volunteering I have seen so much progress in the students that I have taught, and it has been very gratifying. But what has been most gratifying is feeling the trust and affection that grew between us. I will take this deeper understanding of these peoples’ lives and our connection back with me to Maui, where it will be infused into all the Spanish classes I teach.

As someone who has been coming to Oaxaca regularly for the past 22 years, I have to say, this volunteer experience has been on of the most engaging and valuable things I have done here. I recommend the experience to anyone with a love for teaching, a desire to learn cultures outside of the city of Oaxaca, and who are able commit to two afternoons per week for a month or more.

Viva En Vía, y Teotitlán del Valle. 

Molly and her students.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Connecting Our Threads

By Jo-Anne , Canada - Tour Alumnus and Volunteer English Teacher

The ‘nay sayers’ would have me never travel to Mexico.  Their minds full of the corruption and violence that has been reported.  But, like many countries, my own included, Mexico is so much more than its problems…

Two years ago I had the good fortune to visit Oaxaca.  During that trip, I joined a small group of like-minded individuals and spent a day with what was then a fledgling organization promoting responsible tourism and microfinance.  We headed out to Teotitlán, meeting with women in their homes and businesses.  My fee for the tour assisted in providing interest-free loans to a group of three women.  One was a young woman starting up a bakery, the second was adding stock to her small variety store and the third was a woman purchasing products to enhance her trade of traditional weaving.  The women’s stories, like threads, began to weave around my heart, and I knew something special was happening here, with these women and this organization.

Over the past two years, I have remained connected with Fundación en Vía through their regular updates.  Last year, I was delighted to read that Fundación en Vía had embraced a new program providing English classes to the women and children in Teotitlán.  To celebrate my recent retirement, I offered my enthusiasm and a one-month commitment to the program and was accepted as volunteer for the English program.

When I arrived to Oaxaca in January, I joined the current the group of volunteer English teachers, an eclectic mix of ages and nationalities all with same desire to make a difference in this community.  I was assigned to teach a group of mature women in the program. 

After a few weeks of teaching, I was strolling through one of the local markets in Oaxaca when I heard my name being called in a gentle voice.  It was one of the women in my group who had come in to the market for the day to sell her goods.  My delight grew exponentially when she started to show me her products using some of the English words we had studied together that week; small, bigger, yellow, and orange.  In that moment, I realized that the threads that had woven themselves around my heart and connected me to En Vía during my first visit were really part of a bigger tapestry, and that all of the borrowers, tourists and volunteers that have experienced En Vía, have contributed their own threads to this beautiful tapestry.

It is so easy to become weary of charitable organizations that have little impact, and abuse the trust we put in them, but I have experienced firsthand the honesty and commitment of Fundación en Vía.  Come and weave your life thread into our tapestry - we are creating a masterpiece.