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Yumi Moon Panama

By Héloïse Schep

Q: How did you learn about Amigos de las Americas?

A: A lady from the organization comes to Country Day’s AP Spanish class every year. She told us about the organization and the variety of countries that you can visit from four to six weeks.

I read the information she gave about Panama, and it really intrigued me, especially the Panamanian program’s focus on health and safety.

Q: What is Amigos’ mission?

A: To provide participants with opportunities to immerse (themselves in) a culture, practice their Spanish and serve communities.

Q: What was the application process like?

A: I needed to have taken at least two years of Spanish, which I had. Then, I submitted a mental and physical health form to the program.

Seniors Anna Frankel and Yumi Moon pose before a 12:30 A.M. flight out of Sacramento. (Photo courtesy of Frankel)

Q: How did you prepare for Panama?

A: Several months before I left, I attended training sessions at the Sacramento-Davis chapter of the organization about once or twice a month on the weekends. It was one of the smaller chapters, with about seven people.

A chapter leader talks about health and safety – what you should do in case of an emergency, basically. Instructing us was important because an Amigos supervisor only comes to the Panama communities once a week, so you’re kind of on your own.

Q: How does Amigos determine where and with whom you live?

A: About 60 Amigos volunteers went to Panama this summer from different parts of the United States. Beforehand, Amigos representatives went to different communities in Panama to ask people if they could host students.

I was assigned to both my community, Cruz de Rayo, and my host family.

During corn season, senior Yumi Moon and her partner learned how to grind corn from their host uncle so it could be boiled or fried later. (Photo courtesy of Moon)

Q: What was your host family like?

A: I had a host mom, uncle and grandma. My host mother’s kids are grown up; one lived in a nearby community and had two kids, 7 and 10 years old, who visited us every weekend. I lived with another volunteer, known as a “partner,” but that doesn’t happen in every community.

Q: What causes did you help in Panama?

A: What you did depended on the needs of the community. The first week I was there, we held a community meeting with about 50 people and discussed what to do with the Amigos budget of $500.

In the beginning, we were going to make a flower garden in front of the church, but three people opposed the idea. We ended up making a bus stop in the park.

I also helped out with the project of the community next to mine, Santa Ana. They made a welcome sign and created an alleyway in a park from painted tires filled with soil and flowers.

With a $500 budget, senior Yumi Moon's community met and decided to build a bus stop. (Photo courtesy of Moon)

Q: What were your responsibilities?

A: My host mom, my partner and I did the majority of the planning. I did not create the bus stop – we hired people to make it – but my partner and I were supposed to paint the bus stop. Sadly, it wasn’t finished in time, because it kept getting delayed by rain, so I couldn’t paint it.

Q: What did you do when you weren’t volunteering?

A: I participated in “campamentos.” Every weekday, we would gather the kids in the community and play with them for about two hours. The oldest kid was 9 and the youngest just 1 year old. Still, there were only about six or five kids because our community was so small.

We played duck, duck, goose and a bunch of Panamanian games, such as their version of freeze tag.

The neighbors wanted us to have the full Panamanian experience, so we tried on traditional Panamanian clothing. I even went horseback riding, though it was just a tiny walk. My host uncle introduced my partner and me to Panamanian food. The people there also like to sew, so someone made me a cute little bag.

One neighbor had a 13-year-old granddaughter, so we hung out with her a lot.

My partner and I also went exploring in our community and the community next to ours.

Q: Did you see senior Anna Frankel, who also volunteered in Panama through Amigos?

A: She lived in a different community, but I did during “midterms.” After three weeks, all the Panama participants are gathered in one community for two days and help that community. We planted trees for an environmental festival.

Seniors Yumi Moon (second from left) and Anna Frankel (right) snap a "selfie" with two girls from the Sacramento-Davis chapter of Amigos de las Americas at the Fiesta Ambiental. (Photo courtesy of Frankel)

Q: How did the trip affect your Spanish?

A: I definitely gained confidence in my Spanish.

My host family didn’t speak any English, just Spanish. For the first couple of days, when I talked I had the mindset of, “I know I’m messing up, but as long as they understand me, that’s fine.” Then, I really tried to correct all my mistakes, because I just sound dumb when I don’t.

My partner and I helped each other out a lot with Spanish.

Q: What stood out to you about Panamanian culture?

A: People there are so much more free.

No matter where you are, there’s always loud music blasting from the radio.

In America, people close their doors, but there, everyone leaves their doors open during the day. Even if I’ve never met someone before, I can just go to their house and say, “Hello, ‘buenas,’” and they always told me to come in and I’d just chat with them.

Q: What was the biggest culinary difference between Panama and California?

A: During my time in Panama, it was winter, because it’s in the Southern Hemisphere, even though it was still way hotter than here. All the Panamanian fruits come out in the summertime, so fresh fruit and vegetables were not common.

I only had fresh fruit about once a week, and even then I didn’t really like to eat it because it was so overly salted. They really like ketchup and salt!

Q: Did you face any challenges during the trip?

A: The first three weeks weren’t as great; I had a third partner who had to go back to the United States due to health complications in the second week. It was really upsetting because it was right when I was getting used to everything.

Another challenge was holding “campamentos” in a small community. It’s supposed to be with way more kids and a huge event during your trip, but it was really just like a playdate for us.

Also, there were challenges like my host mom. Before I went to stay with her, my Amigos supervisor thought that my host mom was a really sweet, great, understanding person.

Playing games such as "pan con queso" (a popular Panamanian children's game) and helping with English homework, senior Yumi Moon (middle) spent two hours every weekday with children in the community during the "campamentos." (Photo courtesy of Moon)

Q: You also celebrated your birthday in Panama on July 10. How was that?

A: I didn’t expect my host family to actually celebrate it – I even told them they weren’t obligated to – so I wasn’t expecting much. But they got me a vanilla bundt cake, put up balloons on the patio and sang happy birthday to me in Spanish and English.

My partner wrote me a card, and I had birthday cards from my friends in America.

It was so sweet, and it made my day so much better.

Q: What’s the most important thing you learned from your stay in Panama?

A: The value of relationships. I only got to spend a few weeks with the people I met, but we were able to share so many stories in those weeks. Those stories really opened up my views and perspective.

Excerpt originally published in the Sept. 17 edition of the Octagon.