With its isolated location a mile off the coast of Mull, any visitor to the Scottish island of Iona is likely to be a long way from home.
That is certainly true for Paty Cabral, a 24-year-old from the village of Santa Maria de Fe in rural Paraguay.
Cabral is one of a long line of volunteers whose trip to Iona has been made possible by the Santa Maria Education Fund – a UK-based charity that provides scholarships for third-level education as well as free English classes in Santa Maria.
The scheme was set up in 2004 by Margaret Hebblethwaite, founder of the Santa Maria Education Fund. A British journalist, she moved to Santa Maria in 2000 and founded the charity to help with the town’s unemployment and lack of access to tertiary education. Her efforts have forged an unexpected link between the rural South American locale and Iona, triggered by the decision to set up a hotel in Santa Maria.
Hebblethwaite needed the venue’s new manager, Rufino, to speak English to attract foreign tourists.
She got in touch with the Iona community, which had been running a long-standing volunteer programme since 1970, and they accepted Rufino.
Since then a total of 14 volunteers have made the trip from Santa Maria to Iona, staying on the island for around six months.
Rufino now works as a hotel manager in Ciudad del Este – the second-largest city in Paraguay. Three other former volunteers also work in hotels, with a further six teaching English.
Cabral, who has been on Iona since April, said: “I’ve learned a lot and my English has improved hugely. I’ve learned more here than in a year of classes at home.”
She spends her days working in the centre’s kitchens, learning to make bread, cookies and cakes to sell to tourists.
In return, she receives free accommodation and meals, as well as an allowance of pocket money for personal expenses.
For Daisy Rios, who now teaches English in a town near Santa Maria after visiting Iona in 2014, it was an experience she will never forget. “It’s helped me to get work and to stand out for my experiences abroad,” she said.
Good training for a professional environment was just one of the scheme’s benefits to volunteers, according to Kathy Galloway from the fund’s leadership team. “We want to break down barriers of background, age and language,” she said.