Volunteers work together raising funds to renovate the plaza in Los Ayala, Nayarit (Photo Source: Christina Stobbs)
Yes, Mexico is beautiful! Whether you plan to enjoy a vacation or the experience of living in Mexico, you'll find it to be an enriching life experience where one is immersed in a warm, vibrant and welcoming culture brimming with unique and memorable encounters.
Mexico is a feast for the senses and sustenance for the soul. It is hard to believe it could get any better than that but it can! Come along with me and experience the joys and rewards of involving yourselves in the everyday lives of your friendly Mexican hosts.
I will wager that most folks who visit Mexico on vacation are not aware of the many rewarding volunteer opportunities that exist here. My husband and I live in the community of Jaltemba Bay, located approximately 60 kilometers north of the Puerto Vallarta airport.
Jaltemba Bay is a small community comprised of the beach towns of Los Ayala, Rincon de Guayabitos and La Peñita, as well as the many rural communities in the surrounding area. The permanent population of approximately 14,000 nearly doubles during the winter and spring tourist season. This is due to an influx of tourists, and part-time residents, primarily Canadians and Americans seeking to escape the cold winters back home.
When my husband and I first moved here, we were invited by one of our neighbors to attend a community meeting hosted by Los Amigos de Jaltemba. Los Amigos de Jaltemba is a highly respected community service organization comprised of Mexicans and part- and full-time foreigners, who live and work in the community of Jaltemba Bay, whose goal is to improve the lives of area residents.
We attended the meeting, at which my husband volunteered to help out with the plastic recycling program — just one of the many projects of Los Amigos de Jaltemba. Attending the meetings and volunteering to help out turned out to be a wonderful opportunity for us to learn more about our chosen community. We found it was also a great way to meet locals and fellow expats, and form new friendships with folks who live in the area.
My husband helped out with the recycling program for almost two years. He worked side by side with the locals, and as a result of this experience, his knowledge of the Spanish language grew in leaps and bounds. His volunteer experience also helped us adjust to living in a new community and a different culture, because he learned the ins and outs of everything quickly.
|Bandstand in the Los Ayala renovated plaza. (Photo Source: Christina Stobbs)|
I chose to make a difference by volunteering to help out Romy Mora, the Mayor of Los Ayala, with raising funds to build a town plaza. Indeed, I learned that town plazas are very important to the Mexican culture and to families, as they serve as a gathering place for all the community to enjoy.
The plaza, or zócalo, is a place where children play, locals gather to chat and relax, and it is the site of lively fiestas, civic and cultural events. When I became involved in 2009, one square block of earth and sand served the town plaza for Los Ayala. It was also used as a parking lot for the local garbage trucks and tourist buses from all over Mexico that brought people to Los Ayala to enjoy a couple of days' vacation at the beautiful beach.
Even a few hours of your time volunteered in the community can make a really big difference in the lives of the people in your host country. So let me tell you about my first experience volunteering in the local communities.
The town plaza project was to include a gazebo, seating areas and decorative plants. The projected cost of building was $100,000 CAD. This was a daunting goal for a small fishing village with a population of less than 450 adults.
Undaunted, Romy Mora found a government program called the "3 for 1 Program," which is available to help small towns in Mexico make beneficial local improvements.
The 3 for 1 Program was inspired by a group of Mexican immigrants living in California who formed a formal society to raise money to help the small Mexico communities where they grew up. Recognizing the contribution of this society, the Mexican government matches any funds raised three-fold. The 3 for 1 Program was created to acknowledge the fact that tourists and immigrants contribute to the small towns where they visit and reside.
Romy Mora approached government representatives, explaining the true need for a town plaza in Los Ayala, reporting that some money had already been raised in the community. In recognition of the determination of the mayor and the townspeople, officials promised to try to find a way to help and indeed did just that! Learn more about this program here. //microrregiones.sedesol.gob.mx
Next was the daunting job of raising the town's share of $25,000 CAD. With only 450 or so adults in Los Ayala and many of them unemployed, or underemployed, it seemed unlikely the goal could be reached... or was it?
A team of dedicated volunteers organized a traditional Mexican fiesta as the primary fundraiser. They came up with several inventive ways to raise money, and involved the surrounding communities in the Jaltemba Bay area in the project. Donations were solicited from local business and the community at large. Many of the local people did not have much — or any — money to spare, but even they wanted to help in any way they could.
For instance, one local woman said to Romy, "I am really sorry, I do not have much, but I have this bathing suit that you might be able to sell?" (The bathing suit was sold and the proceeds were donated to the project.) This uncommon generosity combined with the volunteer teams' creative efforts, which included soliciting donations for silent auction items. Raffle prize draws held at Los Ayala's Mexican Fiesta were strongly supported by the community. The goal was reached in no time at all.
Under Romy Mora's leadership we raised $28,200.00 CAD, which was matched threefold by the government, and the result is the beautiful town plaza you see in Los Ayala today. Now it is the gathering place for the locals on hot evenings and also the location of the many modest celebrations held for the residents and their children throughout the year.
That fundraiser for the Town Plaza, and the generosity of the volunteers — both local and visiting — is why Los Ayala became known as "the small town with the big heart!"
Since then I have seen the community of Los Ayala band together to organize a variety of community fundraisers, which have included fiestas, themed cruises, garage sales and Karaoke nights. The moneys raised have been used to lay interlocking brick on the street fronting the beach, replace the aging infrastructure piping for sewage, install more street lighting, and even to raise funds for a member of the community who needed help with medical expenses.
One of the most popular annual events is the Annual Dessert Buffet and Dance, a fundraiser for the elementary and kindergarten school in Los Ayala. It's commonly referred to as the most delicious event in Jaltemba Bay! Everyone loves dessert and a great cause! Get more information here.
Other community events include days where volunteers get together to clean the streets, estuary and beach. Last year, the most notable event was a "Clean the Oceans Day" where volunteer scuba divers came from Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara to clean the ocean waters around the island in the bay. For more information on this event click here.
Most of these initiatives would not have been accomplished with the generous support of volunteers both in time and financial assistance, and the participation of the community at large.
As for myself, the volunteer experience has not only opened my eyes to the possibilities, it has enriched my life, made me feel welcome and included in the community and allowed me to make good friends with people I otherwise might never have met. I cannot recommend anything more rewarding than the experience of making a direct difference in the lives of your hosts and neighbors.
If you do a little research on-line or just by asking around town, you will find that volunteering opportunities abound in all areas of Mexico.
This is just a sample of a few of those opportunities available in my area:
Jaltemba Bay Animal Rescue
Jaltemba Bay Animal Rescue was established in 2003 by Lin Chimes of Los Ayala, and is commonly referred to as JBAR. JBAR advocates humane and healthy practices for animals in the Jaltemba area by promoting health, education, spay and neutering, adoptions, foster care and positive relationships with animals and their owners. JBAR hosts free Spay & Neuter Clinics in the Jaltemba Bay area.
Marine Turtle Conversation and Protection
An immensely rewarding volunteering option is helping to conserve the sea turtles. Volunteers who visit during nesting season help out by combing the beaches for nests and eggs, and turtles, and participating in the release of baby sea turtles into the ocean. More information here.
Breast Cancer Clinic
The Cancer de Mama Clinic assists women with breast cancer by hosting an annual clinic and providing counseling, wigs, scarves, free prosthesis, and monetary assistance for medical expenses.
Yes, you will find Rotary Clubs in Mexico! Our Rotary Club hosts regular meetings and their members included Mexicans, Canadians and Americans who work together to host events and provide services for projects that typically focus on education. Recent Rotary Club projects include helping to build two kindergarten schools in the Jaltemba Bay area and a computer room for one of the high schools.
This group of volunteers supports the kindergartens in La Peñita de Jaltemba with the assistance of volunteer teachers. Donations of school supplies are always needed and appreciated. More information here.
Nurse Vicky's Dispensary
Nurse Vicky's Dispensary provides support to schools, seniors, and the needy families in the Jaltemba Bay area.
The umbrella organization for acts of generosity, the Jaltemba Foundation.
Our community hosts an abundance of fundraising events, and organizers are always looking for volunteers to lend a helping hand, whether you have just a couple of hours or a whole week of time to spare.
These events include an annual Horseshoe Tournament, which most recently used the proceeds to build a children's park, the "Park of Angels" in Rincon de Guayabitos.
Another very popular community event is an annual Margarita Challenge where participants compete for the honor of creating the best margarita in Jaltemba Bay. Funds raised are used for education projects, which include providing funding for scholarships and helping local families in need.
Not to be missed if you are on vacation in Jaltemba Bay is the annual fashion show, "Jaltemba Bay's Mujeres a Mujeres" which features fashions created by local designers and an exclusive lunch at a special locale. This event raises funds to support health care and education for women. For more information click here.
Los Amigos de Jaltemba hosts several fundraising events to raise funds for their community projects, and all of the events are heaps of fun. Their community projects focus on Education, Scholarships, Recycling, Beach Clean Up, Eco Park and Economic Development. They also host beach cleanups, and basket making projects in which residents and tourists create wire baskets that serve as bins to collect plastic. If you're on vacation, you'll be surprised at the new friends you will make creating baskets or helping lend a hand building a washroom for a school or a park for the local children to enjoy! Read more information here.
Other notable events in my community include a "Barbie Angel Project" led by Geri de Moss, a very special lady known in town as the Barbie Grandma. Geri collects Barbie dolls throughout the year and crochets dresses for all of the Barbies she collects. This project brings joy to hundreds of little girls in Jaltemba Bay every Christmas. See related story here and more information here.
Last but not least, something is always going on in Los Ayala! If you're planning a vacation in Jaltemba Bay attending one of the many fundraising events will leave you with a memorable vacation experience that will no doubt make an immense difference to someone!
Go ahead; enrich your life by helping others!
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If you would like to donate directly to the non-profits in Puerto Vallarta and Riviera Nayarit, here are some suggestions you may want to consider to help our local communities in this time of greatest need.