Anna Frankel Panama

By Larkin Barnard-Bahn

Q: What is Amigos’ mission?

A: They provide youth with the opportunity to immerse themselves in a new culture, gain leadership skills, act as catalysts for social change and inspire youth leadership in Latin America.

Q: How did you learn about the program?

A: My brother, who’s seven years older than me, did Amigos seven years ago. I was really young, (though), so I didn’t really know anything about it.

Last year, as I was thinking of things I’d like to do, I started researching Amigos, and someone from Amigos talked to our Spanish class. The more I heard about it, the more interesting it sounded.

Also, (senior) Yumi (Moon) expressed interest, and I thought it would be really nice if we could do it together and be there for each other.

After eating breakfast, senior Anna Frankel milks a local family's cow in Panama. (All photos courtesy of Frankel)

Q: What was the application process like?

A: We had to apply online and fill out a few questions about why we wanted to do it, what leadership experience we had and why we thought we’d be prepared for it. After that, we had a phone call interview with the leader of the Sacramento-Davis chapter of Amigos. Then we were accepted. It was a pretty automatic acceptance.

I think Amigos just wants you to show interest in it because (after) going through the experience, I realized that if you aren’t really ready for (it and) fully invested in it, it’s going to be really bad for you.

Q: Why did you choose to go to Panama?

A: The other options were Ecuador, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic. I had already been to Costa Rica with my family, and the Dominican Republic program was only four weeks. Our training director had gone to Ecuador and said her host community mainly spoke a native language, so she didn’t learn very much Spanish. This scared me away from going to Ecuador.

Panama just seemed like the perfect option. I also liked the project’s theme: community and environmental health.

Once a week, senior Anna Frankel helped with activities during the school day in her community.

Q: How did you prepare for Panama?

A: Through the chapter, we had five or six meetings in the four months before the summer. We had health and safety meetings and meetings about cultural sensitivity, different projects we would be doing, the Amigos mission and goals, what we’re there to do and what we’re not there to do.

Obviously, I packed, studied Spanish and bought a lot of things: a mosquito net, a cot and clothes.

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

A: (Yumi and I) signed up to go to the Azuero region of Panama. There are about 60 kids in that specific program. We had a three-day briefing, where we learned a lot to prepare us for everything. On the second day of the briefing, we found out where we were going and with whom we were going.

There are about 25 communities Amigos goes to in our region of Panama. There are six supervisors, and each supervisor had like four communities, and they went to their communities a week before we went there. My supervisor showed up in our community, went to the school and asked the teacher where she could find someone to talk to about Amigos. The teacher showed her to my partner’s host mom’s house, and she walked my supervisor around the community. Together they asked families if they could host volunteers.

Amigos assigned us (to communities and partners) somewhat randomly. We filled out a form on the first day of briefing and found out our partners and community the next day. (The form) had questions like, “Would you like to be somewhere more rural or urban? What’s your Spanish level? What are some of your hobbies?” The day after that, we went to (the) community. The whole thing was crazy fast.

Senior Anna Frankel (middle) and her partners and host family at the "despedida" (goodbye party) in Chitré, Panama. All of the host families came, and there was food and traditional Panamanian dancing.

Q: What was your host family like?

A: It’s so funny to think about. My host family had three children, all of whom were in their 20s. One of them, she’s 26, lived at home with them and had a 5-year-old daughter. I spent a lot of time with them.

They had never hosted anyone before. They weren’t able to come pick me up from the briefing site, like a lot of parents did, because they work full-time, so I went with my partner’s host family.

I was dropped off at their house, and their daughter came out. I was like, “Who are you?” I knew nothing about their family. It was all kind of awkward at first, but as time went on, I became really close with them. They’re just the sweetest, most generous people in the world. They loved having us there, showing us their culture, showing us their food (and) making us feel really, really welcomed. We ended up having a great relationship.

Q: Did you speak only Spanish?

A: Yeah, no one in my community spoke any English. The kids, because they learn English in school, know some English vocabulary, but it’s not like their teachers speak English. The high schoolers are able to read and write in English, but they don’t know how to speak English.

It was good because it really, really forced me to speak Spanish. Often, when you speak a new language, you can be really timid, and you’d just rather not talk. But in this situation, I had no choice but to talk. Even if my Spanish was completely wrong, if I wasn’t using the right grammar, if I wasn’t speaking in the right tense, it really didn’t matter as long as I could get my point across.

As time went on, I was able to really focus on grammar and learning more words. It also came really naturally because if you’re listening to people speak the same words and their own community words a lot, they just become part of your own vocabulary.

Q: How did you help the community?

A: Each community is given $500 to do a project. (Our community) understood because they’d had volunteers before, so they planned a community meeting for us.

Day one, we went to the church, and like 30 people showed up. They started talking, and they decided that they wanted to expand the patio and the roof of the church so that more people could fit in it when the priest comes like once a month. It took us a while to figure out what they were saying, but after that, it was all just the planning and implementation of it.

It was really their project. Obviously, we don’t know how to build a roof and a patio (or) where to get the materials and everything. We are the representatives of Amigos, so we have forms that Amigos gave us. They fill out the forms, and we explain how much money we have, when we need to have it done by and stuff like that.

Our main job was going around the community trying to find people who could facilitate all this. One man worked in construction and had a connection with a store a few communities away, and we were able to get some discounts on materials. We asked a bunch of people if they would be willing to donate their time to work, and so many people did.

Our project was $300 over budget, so we had to find a way to cut back on what we were making and find a store that had cheaper materials. It was often just overcoming setbacks and moving the project forward.

Our project got done the day we left; it took about three days to actually build.

Through Amigos de las Americas, senior Anna Frankel helped design a project to build a patio and fix the roof of a community church.

Q: What did you do when you weren’t working on the project?

A: We mainly learned, explored and met people. That took up 95% of our time. We watched TV with our host families, walked around, ate food people made for us, went on hikes, read a lot and played with the kids.

We also held summer camps for kids in our community. They were two hours a day, and Amigos had set themes and topics for us to cover because it’s supposed to be educational. One week was on reforestation; one week was on preventing mosquito illness; one week was on mental health.

It was a challenge because it was really hard to find kids who wanted to come play with us. On Wednesdays, for two hours during the school day, we ran programs for the kids at school. But most of the kids who go to the school in our community don’t live there; they live in another community. So on the other days, we mainly just played with these four kids who loved to play Uno and soccer with us.

Q: Did you see Yumi, who also volunteered in Panama through Amigos?

A: I saw Yumi three times. We were together for the briefing, which was three days; were together for the midterm, which was two days; and we were together for the debriefing, which was three days.

During a 10-hour layover in Houston, senior Anna Frankel (left) takes a "selfie" with other members of the Sacramento-Davis chapter of Amigos de las Americas, including senior Yumi Moon (second from right). Everyone volunteering in Panama met at the Houston airport before flying to Panama City together.

Q: What was the midterm?

A: The midterm was in a community called Chepo up in the mountains pretty near my community. It was really beautiful. It was called the “Fiesta Ambiental,” or the environmental party, and all the Amigos volunteers in the region and a bunch of local youth came together.

We stayed at the school, and we planted trees and had some activities based on protecting the environment. We were able to talk, relax, eat fruit and just have a really good time.

It was a mental break for me because it gave me time away from my partners. Even though I loved my partners, it can get intense to be around the same people 24/7. I got to talk to Yumi, and we got to share (our experiences). That’s one of the hardest things: just not being able to tell anybody about anything. I was living the same lives my partners were living, and we had no contact with anyone else. Our supervisor came one day a week, so we told her everything just because there was someone to tell things to.

We’re having all these experiences and challenges, having to eat food that we don’t like and having awkward conversations with people. Everything I did, I just wanted to share. There was no one to share things with, and that’s not something you think about much when you have people to tell your stories to all the time.

Q: How did the trip affect your Spanish?

A: My Spanish definitely improved. I’d taken many years of Spanish; I took AP Spanish. I knew vocabulary and grammar, but actually putting that all together and being able to speak took time. It was hard at first, and it slowly became easier. I just became more confident and comfortable with it.

Q: What stood out to you the most about Panamanian culture?

A: The openness and happiness of the people. I can’t speak for all of Panama, just for my community and of the stories I’ve heard. In a small rural community where almost everyone is family — they’ve all lived there their whole lives and it’s relatively secluded from the rest of the world — there’s this real sense of community, this intense connection.

You’d think maybe they wouldn’t be open to an outsider showing up in their community, but it was the complete opposite. Everyone was so happy to hear about our culture, to show us their culture, to give us their food and to have us stay with them. They keep their doors open. If you walk by anyone, they yell, “¡Buenas!” at you.

Students from the local school in senior Anna Frankel's community smile for the camera. Following a field-day activity, all the kids received goody bags with stickers, balloons and lollipops.

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

A: At least where I lived, they didn’t eat many fruits or vegetables. My diet consisted of fried bread, fried plantains, hot dogs, fried chicken, rice and potatoes. That was the biggest challenge for me.

It’s funny; when I went there, I didn’t think that the hardest part would be the food. But that was the only reason I ever wanted to go home: to just eat the food I eat at home because I always felt really unhealthy.

In contrast to that, I really enjoyed some of the food I ate. This fried dough called “Hojaldres” was really good. I learned to love fried plantains.

It was really, really difficult just because it was so different. The only vegetables I ever ate were vegetables soaked in mayonnaise. We occasionally ate fruit, but they eat fruit kind of like we eat candy here: in very small amounts and for special occasions.

Q: What were other challenges you had during the trip?

A: Boredom. While we were learning a lot and experiencing a lot, the majority of our day was (spent) just sitting around talking. But it was also a good learning experience because I learned how to just sit in a hammock for a few hours and think for many days at a time. That’s something that most people don’t experience, but it’s really good reflective time. It was a good break from my usual busy routine and schedule.

Another challenge would be the Spanish because there were so many times I wanted to communicate my gratitude or something about me to have people really know me. I was living with these people for weeks and weeks, and they didn’t really know who I was because we couldn’t communicate that well.

I was able to get around those (barriers). One night, I really wanted to describe my family, and there was a certain aspect of my family that I was really struggling to describe. I got out my dictionary, and we were talking back and forth. We were trying to figure out the words, and I think I was able to get the ideas across, which was my goal.

Q: What was the most important thing you learned?

A: I learned how to communicate with people even when language barriers got in the way and how to go with the flow in every random situation.

I basically never knew what I was doing the next day, but I just grew to accept and enjoy that kind of lifestyle. When people invited us to attend the Sunday school, milk their cow, make chorizo (pork sausage) or whatever else, we went with it and ended up having the best experiences this way.

But I think my biggest takeaway was just how remarkably generous, open and kind random strangers can be. I’d never experienced that to this level before. It made me really want to bring that happy, welcoming attitude home with me.

Q: Would you recommend Amigos?

A: Absolutely. It was an amazing learning experience. Being able to live in and fully immerse myself in a completely different culture and being able to grow from it was really inspiring.

But I also don’t recommend it for everyone because it was really hard. Unless you’re really interested in having that kind of fully immersive experience away from everything else, I don’t think you would enjoy it the way I did.

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