Warning! Volunteer Just Once for this Unique Language Program, and You’ll Be Hooked For Life.
When Simon and I discovered Diverbo Pueblo Ingles nearly 15 years ago, it was one of those random events that would later prove to be life-altering.
We were living in Atlanta at the time, adjusting to being recent empty-nesters and working toward our retirement. Simon read me something he had come across on the web. The idea of free room and board for a week in a Spanish village, speaking English all day to help Spaniards learn the language, seemed like something we would enjoy. Diverbo Pueblo Ingles was a total immersion program with no Spanish allowed, we needed no credentials or experience in teaching and the program ran almost all year round. What was there not to like?
As often occurs, life happened, and we didn’t make it to Spain until the summer of 2014. It was then we had our first taste of Diverbo Pueblo Ingles at Coto del Valle, which was set amid the stunning scenery of the Sierra de Cazorla in Andalucía,. Since that fateful week, we have returned to Diverbo Pueblo Ingles to feed our addiction on three more occasions at a comfortable resort within walking distance of the charming medieval village of La Alberca near Salamanca. We also spent nearly a week at Diverbo Englischhausen in Germany’s captivating Black forest.
Each Diverbo experience was unique on every level. To tell all, and do it justice, would fill an entire book. So I will focus on our most recent week at La Alberca. I hope this will open a window for you on what the Diverbo program is all about, and why we are so hopelessly and blissfully hooked.
There are many reasons why Diverbo has worked it’s way into our hearts and minds, but the number one aspect that brings us back again and again is the students.
They are, for the most part, professionals who want to sharpen their command of the English language to improve their prospects within the international companies for which they work. But for others like Roberto, the week at Diverbo can come down to a matter of survival.
This friendly middle-aged man went straight to my heart with his combination of a heavy burden and positive attitude. He had recently lost his job with a civil engineering company when it closed its doors without warning. He had a family to support, and was desperate to begin earning an income again. There were upcoming job interviews for which Roberto – who could easily knock it out of the park when it came to experience, talent and work ethic – needed to prove he could function in English as well as Spanish. He worked hard every minute of the program, and his determination was both heart wrenching and uplifting to watch. But we never heard him complain about the bad hand life had dealt him. He simply played his cards the best way he could.
Some students were sponsored by their companies, while others like Roberto and Gema, who was moving to Lisbon for a new job with an international cosmetic company, paid the 2,000€ as an investment in their futures.
Who could forget Ricardo, who had a joke and a song for every situation. Then there was Isabel, who arrived at La Alberca with tears of fear, and left with tears of joy and gratitude because of what she had accomplished. These and all the other students, individually and collectively, gave Simon and me so much more than we ever gave them.
Every week at Diverbo seemed like the United Nations when it came to our fellow volunteers, only without the corruption and stupidity. They hailed from as far as India, Norway, England, Scotland, Australia and New Zealand. At our last Diverbo program, aside from the usual Americans and Canadians, we had Tom from the Republic of Ireland, Joseph from Northern Ireland, Theo from the Netherlands and Jung from South Korea.
Some of us were new Diverbo volunteers, while others were long-time addicts. What we’ve learned from our experience is that no matter the diversity of the volunteers and the level of English spoken by the students on the first day, by the time we leave, we’re family. It doesn’t matter whether someone is Spanish or Anglo, if someone needs help, an entire support system magically appears. As the week progresses we evolve into a family of sorts, and the bonds that form among the volunteers, the students and between volunteers and students are strong enough to last a lifetime.
While in Spain we had the pleasure of spending a day in a small Galician village with James, a British expat with whom we volunteered on two separate occasions. We also met up with Lucia in Santander, and Maria in Ovieda. Both were students from our last class at La Alberca, and Maria and her friends taught us the correct way to drink hard cider in Asturias. Apparently, small amounts are poured from the bottle from a height of about two feet. Then you drink it down like you would a shot, and fling the droplets remaining in your glass over your shoulder.
If Tom and Joseph are on their home turf this coming fall, we’ll be raising a glass or three with them later this year. And there’s no telling where or when we’ll reconnect with any of our ever-growing international Diverbo family.
The Program Director and the Master of Ceremonies (MC)
Each Diverbo class has a Program Director and an MC. The former does the scheduling, deals with problems that come up, takes ailing volunteers and students to receive medical care and about a thousand other things to ensure the week goes smoothly. The MC coordinates the activities, facilitates interaction, entertains everyone and herds kittens.
The Program directors and MC’s we’ve had over the last three years have all been outstanding, but let me tell you about the two we worked with this year.
A native of Minneapolis, Beth graduated from college with a degree in Spanish, then waited tables because she didn’t know what she wanted to do next. Many of her fellow employees were from Central and South America who spoke no English, and she often found herself in the role of translator. It was then she began to see how she could turn her degree into a career in translating and interpreting
Fast forward several years and two masters degrees, and Beth is now living in Madrid. She divides her time into working one week a month as Program Director for Diverbo and doing freelance translation work from home the rest of the month.
Beth began working in Diverbo’s summer program for teens during some of the years when she was a teacher in the public schools. She loved it, but found it exhausting. Once she was able to jump through all the hoops that enabled her to work at any job she wanted in Spain, Beth quit her job, and now she has the best of two worlds.
Beth has a calm personality, and can react quickly and professionally in a crisis. Her ability to schedule on the fly was something to see. No matter how good a schedule is, one minor change, and the whole thing is in jeopardy. But Beth never let that faze her. In some ways, she reminded me of a duck: floating serenely on the water’s surface, and paddling like hell underneath.
I asked Beth what it is that keeps bringing her back to Diverbo. “I really enjoy working with people,” she responded. “You really get energized.” Living and working alone can certainly take its toll on an outgoing, sociable individual like Beth. “It’s nice to work for one week a month with people who are fun, people who are motivated, who are working toward a goal,” she said. “If I can help them do it, I don’t need anything more than that. We all want to feel that we’re useful.”
The Spaniards obviously come to learn English, but Beth was inspired by what one of them said during lunch. “Juan told me he had also learned a lot about people, as well as he did about himself,” she recalled. Speaking from personal experience, this is also true of volunteers.
Beth pointed out another consistent outcome “in both the teen and adult programs. “I’m just amazed at how quickly a group of complete strangers gel. Within two days,” she said, “everyone becomes a big family. People from different countries and backgrounds make friends for life. I’m amazed at how an experience like this, that lasts for one week can impact a person for life.”
Born in Kiev,, Allan didn’t speak a word of English until he moved to Liverpool when he was seven. When he was 16, he joined the military and wound up flying as a military airman for 24 years. He is now a pacifist.
Once out of the service, Allan worked as a management consultant, as well as a variety of other jobs. He lived in South Africa, New Zealand, Uruguay, Switzerland, Scotland and back in England, working as a defense instructor.
Allan retired – I use the word loosely – to his beloved Spain at 49, and is now a Spanish citizen.
On the last night of our class, Allan told the story of how he began working for Diverbo. The greatly abbreviated version of his story is that he had become fast friends with a ginger eye-browed, ginger haired, ginger bearded, Major while flying helicopter missions in Bosnia. One day, after Allan had moved to Spain, the Major came up behind him 16 years later, while he was sitting in a café. One drink led to another, and the major persuaded Allan to volunteer at Diverbo.
He was totally underwhelmed at first, but by the end of the week, was hooked. Six months later, Allan was offered a job as MC by Diverbo. And the rest, as they say, is history.
The week we spent with Allan was unlike any Diverbo experience we had ever had. His sense of humor was politically incorrect, clever, irreverent, sometimes slightly off-color and targeted everyone. This immediately appealed to me. He was also serious about respecting each other, making sure the students made the most of their week at Diverbo and keeping us laughing.
When I began to express my concern for Roberto’s situation, and the fear he had of blowing his interviews, Allan informed me he was already working with him privately to help him get ready.
Allan respects everyone’s right to their opinions, and only asks the same respect in return. This, of course also appealed to me, because I’m sick and tired of people who want their opinions to be heard, but don’t want to acknowledge the opinions of others. Allan believes in free speech and practices it often. He also believes political correctness stifles people’s inner strengths
What does he get out of working at Diverbo? “The friendship I get from this place far outweighs any other job I’ve ever had, apart from the military,” he responded. “I can’t get that association with so many frickin’ positive people anywhere else on the planet.”
“It’s watching them arrive like rabbits in the headlights on a Friday, and the following Friday they go, and it’s like I’ve known them for ten years. I see the faces on Friday, and the following Friday, they’ve changed. When I was in the military, I saw so much death, and now, all I look for is life.”
Allan doesn’t think he’s special. Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, and I’m entitled to mine. I think Allan is very special in more ways than I have space or time to explain. All I can say is that if you volunteer at Diverbo, and you get Allan and/or Beth, you’ll be in the company of some of the best this planet has to offer.
A Week at Diverbo
So, what exactly goes on during a week at Diverbo? Let me break it down for you from both a weekly and daily perspective. Diverbo Pueblo Ingles takes place in Spain and runs from Friday morning to the following Friday afternoon. Diverbo Englischhausen is a slightly shorter program.
The first day consists of travel, orientation and ice-breaker activities. It is also an introduction to the tasty and substantial meals we will be enjoying through the week.
Most volunteers and students meet at the Diverbo headquarters in Madrid and board the bus for the five-hour ride to La Alberca. At this time, the week of speaking only English begins. The volunteers are encouraged to find a student and chat with him or her throughout the trip. This can be a challenge, because some folks just want to catch a nap before their intense week starts.
When we arrive, we go directly to lunch. Although there are no table assignments, each table must be occupied by two Anglos and two Spaniards.
After unpacking, we meet for an evening of activities and dinner before we head for bed.
This day eases everyone into the routine for the week with volunteer/student one to one sessions lasting 50 minutes. The day includes at least one group activity, and the first theater skit. During the day, volunteers and students are recruited for future theater activities and presentations.
The schedule is similar to the previous day with one exception. After dinner, a Queimada ceremony is held. This is a traditional Galician ceremony that dates back to the Celts, and involves the brewing of a strong alcoholic drink using fire, coffee beans, sugar and some potent potable. During the brewing, three witches – students and volunteers – recite an incantation in Galician, Spanish and English. This is done in pitch darkness, and sounds spooky, but is intended to banish all evil spirits. Then the brew is completed, and we get to drink it. If you find yourself a participant in a Queimada, take my advice and be careful. Two of those cups will knock you on your butt.
This is the first day conference call roll-playing is introduced, along with discussion groups of four taking the place of one of the one to one session before lunch.
After dinner, a party is held in the bar area with the MC playing DJ. Music, dancing and libations are the order of the evening. And everyone has a fun and relaxed time.
After breakfast, the group walks into La Alberca, enjoys a historical tour of the village and some free time to wander around or buy some souvenirs.
Next there is a visit to a local watering hole where we’re served local ham with cheese, bread and generous amounts of wine.
Then lunch is served at a restaurant owned by the same owners as the resort where Diverbo is held.
The first of the student presentations are held. The audience is made up of volunteers who are able to ask questions, and otherwise show support for the often-nervous students.
This is the last full day, and consists of more presentations, conference calls one to one and group sessions and activities.
The last dinner is a multi-course meal up at the hotel that is part of the resort.
After breakfast, there is one more group activity, and graduation. Spanish may now be spoken, and the tears and good-byes begin. Some leave before lunch, so the emotional outbursts are divided into two parts. After lunch, the rest of us either drive off or board the bus back to Madrid.
This rough outline doesn’t even come close to the changes that occur during the course of one week. Most important, however, is the level of confidence we see in the students. To be a part of this transformation, and to have hopefully contributed to it in some small way, is worth every ounce of time and energy we put into volunteering at Diverbo.
A Typical Day
Now, let’s break the Diverbo experience down even further.
9:00 AM: Breakfast is a buffet of hot and cold items, including eggs, bacon, breads, meats, cheeses, cereals, yogurt, fruit, pastries and more. We organize ourselves at tables, and begin speaking English.
10:00 AM to 2:00 PM: One to one sessions. These are periods where one Anglo is paired with one Spaniard for conversation, and later in the week, help with upcoming presentations. I have fond memories of long walks in the sunshine with students. The conversation covered everything from families to the location of the Holy Grail. There are usually three of these, followed by a group session and, perhaps, conference call practice and presentations for some.
2:00 to 3:00 PM: Lunch is a three course meal with wine and hot beverage. The night before, we make our choices of lunch and dinner appetizers and main dishes for the following day. A salad can be requested for any of the courses, and I definitely took advantage of this option.
3:00 to 5:00 PM: We all have free time to sleep, work, walk or do whatever we want.
5:00 PM: We gather for a group activity designed to encourage interaction and conversation. These activities can involve small groups engaged in problem solving, role-playing and presenting each group’s conclusion at the end of the activity. Scenarios are usually off-the-wall and funny, but the main function of the volunteers is to make sure all the students are actively engaged.
6:00 to 8:00 PM: This time is for the last two one to ones of the day and theater practice.
8:00 PM: An eclectic mix of entertainment including volunteer presentations and theater skits. The skits are hilarious, and everyone begins to unwind from the intensity of the day.
This year, Simon and I did a presentation on our travels in Jordan, using Simon’s photos to tell our story.
9:00 PM: Dinner
10:00 PM: With the exception of the Queimada and the party, this time is optional. You can hang out in the bar or turn in. During some weeks, there were games after dinner, but this year, there was more ‘hang-out’ time.
On average, we put in a 14-hour day, went to bed exhausted, and woke up the following morning excited for the privilege of being able to do it all again.
Diverbo and Beyond
Diverbo – initially called Pueblo Ingles – was born of the need for Spanish learners to immerse themselves in the English language, and build up their confidence. Today, Diverbo offers language services to meet a variety of needs: Pueblo Ingles for Teens, Pueblo Ingles for Doctors and special programs for Spanish ESL Teachers.
Diverbo also makes available live and online classes. But perhaps what Diverbo does best is bring individuals from diverse nationalities, cultures, religions, political beliefs, sexual orientations, backgrounds and experiences together in one place with magical results. Where else could I have learned how to make fresh chorizo, prepare a family’s cherished recipe for seafood paella or grow roses all in the same week? I have also come to the conclusion the best way to learn about Spain is from the students. The information this year’s group generously shared with us made our trek into Northern Spain a delight. From out-of-the-way villages to local culinary specialities to regional wines, we found gems we would otherwise have missed on our own.
Diverbo makes every effort to accommodate persons with disabilities or with special dietary needs. As a blind person traveling with a guide dog I had no problems participating in all activities with the occasional assistance of one of the other volunteers or students. While the property at La Alberca is not completely wheelchair accessible both students and volunteers are not beyond carrying a wheelchair and occupant up the narrow stairs to the main activity room. The rooms in the main hotel are fully wheelchair accessible but regrettably the doors in the cottages are too narrow.
Since last year, a WhatsApp group has been established at the end of each program. This has made staying in touch easy and fun. All these people are priceless treasures we don’t want to lose.
For us, the combination of a unique volunteer experience, the amazing students, volunteers and staff we have met and the opportunity to have all this in a country we have come to know and love deeply is something that can never be bought, borrowed or stolen. And once bitten by the Diverbo bug, there is thankfully no cure.
Visit the Diverbo website for more information about the programs offered or how you can become a volunteer.
(Names of all students and volunteers, as well as some personal details, have been changed in order to protect their privacy.)