A home for helpers

Sunday is pot-luck night at the Casa de losAmigos, and the company is as diverse asthe food. Sitting down for roasted chicken,rice soup, and strawberry tamales are Casa volunteersfrom Mexico and the US, a reporter fromCalifornia, an Alaskan English teacher, a Japaneseboarder, and a local Greek dancer. The conversationshifts to personal philosophic revelations: “I’vebeen learning that you have to live in the moment,”says Cassandra, the dancer, picking out a piece ofchicken. “…I mean like appreciating the friendsthat are with you right here and right now.”

Image:Luz Montero

The meeting room at Casa de los Amigos is a gathering spot for Quakers and hostel guests.

Many who come to the Casa de los AmigosCenter for Peace and International Understandingstay only for a short while, but they have leftbehind a priceless legacy of volunteerism.

The seeds were planted in the late 1930s, whenMexico City’s Quakers began to organize ruralwork camps. Volunteers from the US and Mexicobuilt schools, drained mosquito-ridden marshes,and repaired hurricane damage. The camps becamepopular with American conscientious objectorsescaping World War II.

The Quakers, a religious group known for pacifism and emphasis on a personal relationship withGod, continued their work in Mexico throughoutthe 1940s and 50s, adding programs assistingSpanish Civil War refugees. Thousands of volunteerscame through Mexico City every year. In1956, the American Friends Service Committeeacquired the Casa’s building from the family of thelate Mexican muralist José Clemente Orozco. Thethree-story purple house in Colonia Tabacalerabecame a clearinghouse for Quaker volunteers,and “…at some point they started letting peoplestay who weren’t directly involved with the workcamps,” explains manager Nicholas Wright.

Nowadays NGOs from Acapulco to Zimbabwehave websites, but before the Internet, would-be volunteersstarted their Latin American quests in thelibrary of the guesthouse. One of the Casa’s greatesttreasures is a huge collection of notebooks recountingvolunteer experiences: they contain details aboutwhich programs feed their volunteers, which expectthem to fend for themselves, and what a visitorshould expect in the Chiapas jungle. Altruists arestill drawn here, stopping on their way to work onorganic farms, teach English to rural schoolchildren,or help women set up small businesses.

“People who are doing volunteer work still stayhere because…it’s known as the place to start outbecause you have information from ten thousandpeople,” Wright says.

The Casa is run by a dynamic volunteer staff,doing everything from greeting guests and organizingactivities to cleaning and preparing meals.

“Some people think volunteering is somethingyou do if you don’t have any skills,” says volunteerAli Packard. “I think volunteering is somethingyou should do if you have a lot of skills.”

In addition to her talents as a sous-chef, Packardis also a skilled tango dancer and welder. “Iwork at the Casa, I’m unpaid… My parents havespent twenty years trying to come to terms withthe fact that I don’t have a career or a mortgage ora car or children. I think they fi nally realize thatwhat I do is actually quite cool.”

“Our…challenge is maintaining the peace ofthe guest house while coping with the quantity ofhuman traffi c,” says Wright, a former backpackerwho now lives in the Casa with partner and fellowvolunteer Jill Anderson, and their one-year-olddaughter Agnita, who was delivered by a midwifein one of the Casa’s apartments.

Although not a hotel or hostel, the Casa ends upin travel guides, which is part of the challenge.

“As long as [the books] say we’re a Quaker-runplace with something to do with internationalunderstanding, then it’s fine," Wright says. “Butsometimes when people come here who meantto go to Hostel Amigo, then we end up havingan effect on them.” Guests who may have neverconsidered volunteering find themselves sharinga dinner table with someone who spends their lifehelping others, and many end up searching fortheir own opportunities to help.

Visit Casa de los Amigos on the web at casadelosamigos.org.