Recently, I had a great opportunity to visit San Miguel de Allende, Mexico and stay with new wonderful friends while learning about several volunteer organizations in this beautiful town. San Miguel is gorgeous, and it is no wonder they have such a huge expat community of folks starting new chapters of their lives in such an idyllic setting. Cobblestone streets, amazing squares, delicious food, and a welcoming sensibility unlike what I’ve found in almost any other city. My friend who joined me and I had to keep pinching ourselves, thinking, “People aren’t really this nice, are they?” It was a truly heartwarming week.
Part of what warmed my heart so darned much was the volunteer work I got to do and the programs we visited. The main organization I got to know (and was completely blown away by the passion and dedication of their enormous volunteer force) was Feed the Hungry San Miguel. This group provides nutritious meals for about 4,000 kids every school day (for many of these kids it will be their only hot meal…for some, perhaps their only meal, period). They’ve been going since 1984, and are a model of a well-oiled huge effort that still effectively addresses the mission statement. Often, as programs grow, they grow unruly, and time and personalities can derail even the best intentioned volunteer efforts. These folks have such a smooth system. I’m sure the development road has had its share of twists and turns, but today, they are inspiring. There are 23 rural kitchens, staffed by local women (who are trained and employed year-round, even when the school year ends), as well as 4 urban kitchens in the city, plus eight other charitable organizations who get their food supplies from Feed the Hungry. In addition to the nutritious meals (I was lucky enough to spend a morning helping out in a kitchen, then serving the meals to the kids at one rancho school), Feed the Hungry built most of the kitchen facilities, and often added additional resources to the schools (like bathrooms with functioning plumbing in one school we visited. Previously, kids squatted in the field), and they are now spearheading a “Family Garden” initiative where sustainable vegetable gardens are being launched in the communities. There is a nutritionist who visits every program and does testing for healthy body mass index, diabetes, malnutrition-based disease, and general health–to measure actual results of the programs. With the food programs, sanitation education is also implemented, and the health of students rises from that as well. The warehouse where foods (and cleaning and cooking supplies) are batched for distribution each week is an amazing operation, and the genuine pride of the large volunteer force just rocked my world. They are passionate and dedicated whether driving supplies to schools in their own cars, or hefting giant bags of rice, or drawing maps for new volunteers, or blogging to increase awareness, each volunteer gets how much their work means.
If anyone were to ever ask my opinion about how to effectively run a volunteer program of scale, I would point to Feed the Hungry San Miguel as pretty much the best example you’re likely to find. Find out more, support their work, and if you are lucky enough to visit this beautiful vacation spot (and be careful…I can’t tell you how many people I met who came for a visit and ended up working with a realtor before they went back home to pack up and move to San Miguel), get to know this group (and do some volunteering).