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Volunteer South America (www.volunteersouthamerica.net) is a directory of free or affordable volunteer programs located in Central and South America. Apart from listing individual opportunities by country and category (free or low-cost for accommodation/meals), it also provides links to other volunteer resources and organizations worldwide.

The site is designed to offer those interested in volunteering with non-commercial links to worthy programs without having to pay middle-man or institutional fees.

Many placements are long term, requiring a minimum six-month commitment, whereas others allow you to be more flexible and fit in a volunteering experience as part of a vacation abroad. Spanish proficiency is also often a requirement, especially when working with children so you will need to bear this in mind when searching for options. Examples of current opportunities include:

The Sacred Family Children's Community (www.peruchildren.4t.com) is located in the suburb of Ventanilla, about one hour's drive from Lima, Peru. The center caters for more than 320 children, many of whom were abandoned or have come from abusive households. The project is looking for enthusiastic volunteers who are interested in working with children as part of an international team. Volunteers can stay for as long as they like, although a minimum of one month is recommended and preference is given to volunteers who are already proficient in Spanish. Volunteering may include social work, teaching children, assisting with homework, vocational programs, animal care, recreational and sports activities, publicity and fundraising or even assisting with website design. Accommodation is provided in specially constructed cabins within the Center's grounds and although there is no set monthly fee, donations are appreciated. Volunteers need to pay for their own food costs -- which generally run between $3 and $6 per day.

Andean Bear Conservation Project (www.andeanbear.org) offers several opportunities, but most commonly as bear trackers and teachers in Intag, an area on the edge of the Cotacachi-Cayambi reserve, a rural farming region in the Northern Andean Mountains of Ecuador. Bear trackers work in the field gathering valuable data on the movements of the bears and live in a volunteer house near the village of Santa Rosa. Volunteers can also teach in local schools, building relationships with local communities emphasizing the plight of the Andean Bears. Depending on which school volunteers choose to work at, teachers will generally stay on the school grounds in a self contained apartment or with a local family. Previous teaching experience and a good grasp of Spanish allows volunteers to be able to teach a variety of subjects.

Volunteers are asked to make a financial contribution toward the project. All food and accommodation costs are covered by this contribution and the remainder of the money goes towards the project, funding daily operations, equipment maintenance and compensating farmers for damage caused by bears to maize fields. Anyone aged 18 or over can volunteer with training provided as part of the program. For bear tracking, a minimum two-week commitment is required, whereas for teaching, a one-week period is suggested. For both programs though, a one-month commitment is preferred. Contributions are usually $100 per week or $380 for a month ($310 for subsequent months) paid on your arrival at the project (nothing is expecting beforehand).

For the creative traveler with a social conscious, Creative Corners (www.creative-corners.com) is a little different form regular volunteering opportunities. It specifically targets volunteers who can dance, paint, build, photograph, make films, act, play musical instruments, juggle, sing, tell stories, teach circus skills, sculpture or design among other artistic pursuits. In general the organization looks for people who can commit to a two-month project, although shorter placments are also available, like planting a garden or painting a mural. Programs start from $1,277 for one month in Peru ($334 for a second month), $1,179 in Bolivia ($295 for the second), $1,356 in Honduras, Guatemala or Nicaragua ($393 for the second), $1,493 in Costa Rica ($393 for the second) and $1,562 in Brazil ($472 for the second). A one-month program in Bolivia is $1,022, Brazil $1,218 and Peru $1,061. Included in the price are the project application and placement process, airport collection, organized and pre-vetted accommodation in a local home stay or hostel, comprehensive travel insurance, quality pre-departure information, visa advice plus guidance from staff who have personal knowledge of the countries and accommodation. International flights and food costs are additional.

Vounteer Petén (tel. +502/711-0040; www.volunteerpeten.com) is a not-for-profit organization in San Andrès, Petèn Guatemala that trains international volunteers to participate in, design and implement sustainable projects. Projects focus on environmental/ecological education, general education, reforestation, forest management, medicinal plants, working with the public library and public schools, school restoration and literacy programs.

Volunteers can and are expected to take part in all program areas and typical work days run from 8am to noon Monday through Friday. Afternoons are spent studying Spanish, running errands, teaching, participating in activities or continuing work in ecological park. Activities include field trips, movie nights and working in the community library. The program works best with volunteers who can commit to four to 12 weeks of service. Current Costs for Volunteer Petén are $350 for four weeks, $650 for eight weeks and $950 for 12 weeks. These prices include all food, housing (with a local family), airport or bus terminal pickup, training, activities and resources for projects. Volunteers can take private Spanish classes for $4 per hour with qualified local teachers in their free time. After 12 weeks of service, volunteers can continue to stay with their family for a reduced rate of $175 per month with meals included.

With close to a hundred programs to choose from on the Volunteer South America website, there is bound to be a volunteering opportunity that suits your interests and budget.

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