My son participated in this program last summer (2007), volunteering to help the Mackaw program in the jungles of Costa Rica. Because he had an unusually hard semester prior to leaving in May, I told him I would do some preliminary work for him to help him prepare for his trip. I had to email ISV several times with questions and it always was like pulling teeth to get answers. There typical response was that an email would be going out to participants closer to the start of their trip. However, it seemed like the start date was advancing and not a lot of information was disseminated.
One such item of discussion was what kind of luggage or back pack was preferable. Because my son was not a big backpacker, I did not want to spend a lot of money on a backpack for his 6 week trip nor did I want him to borrow a good backpack from anyone with the possibility of him ruining it. I researched several options, and ended up buying one on EBAY. It was a relatively inexpensive backpack ($60-ATI Tahoe85 Internal Frame Hiking Backpack ). It looked good, but you get what you pay for as this backpack barely lasted the duration of his trip. I had sent him with duct tape (wrapped around a pencil) for emergency repairs so he was able to make it home with the backpack intact. The one I had bought him opened in the front as well as on the top and he said that came in handy. After looking at several pictures of his trip, I noticed that several people had suitcases so a backpack is not a requirement.
Another issue that ISV did not tell the volunteers about until late in the game is that they WILL NEED Malaria pills. I actually had looked up Costa Rica on the the CDC website and found that the area my son was going to be working in was a high Malaria area so I had ordered the pills online (very cheap). Also, because he was working with Mackaws, they told the volunteers not to wear mosquito repellant - so I ended up soaking a lot of his clothes in Sawyers Clothing repellent and buying him natural type repellents.
ISV also should look at the start and ending times of their trips. They first meet in the early am the first day. This requires that participants who are not flying with the group need to get to their start city the night before and find their own lodging for that night and wait for the meeting the next am. The trip home also ends late in the afternoon, again requiring the participant to find lodging that night so to catch a flight out the next morning. If they reversed the start and end times, that would be better....but then again, no one asked me and my son ended up having an adventure.
Finally, my son signed up for the Spanish school. After the first hour, it was very evident that he should not be in the school as it is more of an emersion type course. He has taken spanish for about 6 years and is pretty fluent. They realized that he should not be in the beginner course and put him one on one with an instructor who was great. My son also loved living with the host family because it gave him a chance to become conversational.
After the 2 weeks of volunteering, the 2 weeks of touring the country was wonderful. My son ended up throwing away the clothes he wore while volunteering (muddy, sweaty, etc) and ended up leaving his work boots at the Mackaw camp. He wears a size 13 so there was no way he was going to lug them around the country while touring. The most expensive item we bought him for the trip was a good raincoat and he did bring that home. Oh, and I did order him 2 pairs of pretty expensive, quick drying boxers and he loved those. He spent about $200 in cash during the 5 weeks and put a few things on his credit card (btw, be sure to call your bank and let them know that your child's ATM and credit card will be used in another country or after about 2-3 tries, it will be frozen. - Another suggestion that ISV SHOULD tells participants.) Also, be sure to get international calling ability on the cell phones. They told the participants in his group NOT to take their cell phones to the jungle because they would get no signal but my son forgot that he had it with him and ended up being able to call us from the jungle as he had incredible service there. The bummer was that he did leave his charger at the hotel where they had locked up all of their belongings left behind and soon, his phone lost battery power. But still, it would have been nice for ISV to have told the volunteers to take their phones.
Just to be safe, my son scanned his passport and then emailed himself a copy of it (inserted on the face of the email versus attaching it.) That way, in case all of his belongings were lost or stolen, he could always go to an internet cafe and get a copy of his passport. He did freak out once when he could not find his passport, but realized he had hid it in a pouch that his expensive underwear had come packaged in. It was a great hiding spot, but almost too good. After my son got over the shock of not finding his passport, he re-traced his thought process and found it. whew!
I am writing all of this down now just because I realized that this time last year, my son had just returned from his ISV trip in Costa Rica. We missed him terribly while he was gone last summer and thought of him daily. This was a bit strange to us because he had lived away at college for the previous 2 years and we don't miss him like that while he is in school. I guess it was because he was in another country and not immediately accessible had we needed him. If I can think of anything else that might help future volunteers, I will add it. Until then, you can email me.