I volunteered on my second international project during April and May of 2017. This time, I was based out of València, Spain. The program was assisting with environmental conservation in wetlands areas on the outskirts of the city. I have long wanted to visit Spain; especially after a last-minute cancellation to a trip a few years ago. Therefore, the opportunity to contribute to their environmental conservation efforts, via the Volunteering Solutions project, was one I jumped on immediately. I apologize in advance for this post being long-winded, it just goes to show how passionate I am about this project and its staff.
The objective of the conservation project in València is to improve the water quality in L’Albufera, a freshwater late/lagoon that serves important ecological and economical functions in the region. L’Albufera was polluted long ago and the pollution fed the algae that now dominates the lake (and turned it green). The algae prevent aquatic plants from growing and makes life much more challenging for wildlife.
The local teams at Tancat de la Pipa & Marjal de Almenara, the two locations we volunteered, have worked for years planting “green filters” and educating the public about the benefits of preserving the local ecosystems. Green filters are plants that absorb the overwhelming algae, thus cleaning the water. Water is pumped from L’Albufera into two manmade lagoons, cleaned by the green filters, and then pumped back into the lake.
The most exciting moment of my eight weeks on the project was when we took a short boat ride on L’Albufera. The staff members filled with joy when they noticed some aquatic plants floating in the lake. They informed us volunteers that they had not seen these plants in nearly a decade! This was irrefutable proof (aka, real science facts!) that the efforts made by the staff and volunteers during this time is working. It was an incredible moment to share with the team; one I will not soon forget.
As a volunteer on the L’Albufera project in València, you play a very important role in keeping the program running. While many of the tasks may seem menial and repetitive, they’re essential in order to allow the staff to focus on research, working with government officials, and educating the public.
As volunteers, we were charged with an array of tasks to help the local teams. We spent many days cutting reeds that overwhelm the wetland areas. This was either to clear the channel at Almenara to ensure the water could flow smoothly into the sea or to create room for other, smaller plants to grow by giving them access to sunlight. We planted small plants to increase the biodiversity of the manmade lagoons. We also placed and removed cages around groupings of reeds in the middle of the lagoon to create safe places for wetland birds to nest away from predators.
In addition, we helped keep the natural parks clean landscaped so that visitors and school tours were presented with a professional appearance. My favorite task, however, was placing live traps to capture turtles for data collection. This is done during a very brief period of time throughout the year and I was fortunate to be there for it. Turtles are measured and checked against a register to help the researchers determine how well the animals are faring in the wetlands.
The local staff was the highlight of this project. The passion and dedication to their work is inspiring. They truly care about making a difference in L’Albufera while providing an exceptional experience for volunteers.
The local organization, Voluns, is run by 2 incredible women: Beatriz & Noelia. They manage multiple projects with numerous volunteers and do so with absolute grace. I registered a couple small complaints regarding the utilities at our apartment (mostly me just being a pain in the ass). The ladies handled these problems quickly and professionally.
In addition to doing their jobs so phenomenally, they truly care about the volunteers. They’ve made arrangements with the local language school that they also work with to allow volunteers to participate in the school’s extracurricular activities (tours, cookouts, etc.) to help enrich the experience of living in València. Noelia even sets up a “going away” happy hour for each volunteer to thank them for their contribution. Needless to say, I’m excited at the prospect of working with Voluns again in the future!
While Beatriz and Noelia handle the organization of the volunteers, it’s Lurdes who is the primary coordinator on-site. Lurdes is an exceptional individual who serves as the de facto team “Mom”, photographer, chauffeur, teacher, and leader. She’s so compassionate to the needs and feelings of the volunteers that you couldn’t possibly pick a better coordinator if you tried. When it was time to work, she’d lead us through our tasks (often stopping to take photos for us) with a smile. Lurdes also teaches the volunteers extensively about L’Albufera, València, and the projects. This information makes for a much more interesting experience.
Enric, Lucia, Matthieu, and Vicente (and interns Amanda & Alfredo) are tasked with cleaning up and preserving the L’Albufera wetlands. Each of them is as capable and talented as they are amazing. They’re a highly intelligent group with the most welcoming personalities. They speak passionately about the wetlands they’re protecting, whether it be to volunteers, visitors, or local leaders. As much as I enjoyed working with them, it was the lunches where we all gathered together to eat and talk and laugh, that I will remember most fondly.
I shared a 4-bedroom apartment with three other volunteers during my time in València. Our apartment was a bit older than the two new flats that Noelia and Beatriz recently set up. It was a very comfortable spot with a balcony overlooking the local university campus. There were many cheap food options nearby due to the campus location. The location is perfect as it’s a short(ish) walk to the city center, metro stations, and the beach.
Volunteering Solutions is a large, highly visible player in the volunteering placement arena. Their website is excellent and they provided good pre-departure information. Their communication with volunteers via email and social media is great. I received messages to check-in, resolve the issues I raised, and follow up after I left the project. In terms of working with their volunteers and managing a highly active social media sphere, VolSol met my expectations.
I went into this project knowing that Spain would be one of the most expensive countries that I would volunteer in. The price for the program was $2,700 for eight weeks plus a $225 application fee. The cost does not include meals. I knew this from the start and accepted it.
However, I was later informed that approximately 20% of that program fee is kept for VolSol’s expenses. This money is not passed on to the NGO. In my previous project with Love Volunteers in Costa Rica, 100% of the project fee goes to the NGO. Naively, I assumed this was the case with VolSol.
Personally, I want full transparency when it comes to choosing my placement agencies. A response of “nowhere on the website we have mentioned that 100% of the program cost goes to the program” is unacceptable to me. I’m a bit of a stubborn fool and I realize businesses have to make money. But because of this, VolSol will not be at the top of my list for future projects.
Despite my dislike of their fee structure, Volunteering Solutions runs a very organized placement process. They also have many excellent projects from which to choose. Based on that alone, I would still recommend them for prospective volunteers interested in their projects. Compared to other large placement agencies, VolSol still offers some of the best deals in terms of value.
I put a lot of financial thought into this project prior to applying due to my limited funds on this journey. Fortunately, what I received from this experience was worth more than I could have expected. Not to mention, València is incredibly affordable if you’re smart about it!
The people, the mission, and the location of this project make it truly exceptional. València doesn’t get the press that Madrid and Barcelona get, but it is a beautiful and vibrant city nonetheless (to check out my first impressions of the city, click here). In summation, I overwhelmingly encourage volunteering in València!