By Bob Holland
Speaking Spanish While Caring for Costa Rican Preschoolers an Eye-Opening Experience
On Cadet Greg Hersh’s very first day of volunteering at an orphanage in Costa Rica last spring, a 3-year-old named Aaron Salazar with big brown eyes, black hair, and a continuous smile caught his attention.
After Hersh ’09 had met his class and helped the preschoolers put on their shoes following an afternoon nap, Aaron asked if the visitor from VMI would sing “Gusanito, Gusanito” with him.
Hersh explained in his broken Spanish that he had no idea what tune that was, so Aaron played the nursery song on the classroom radio six times, each time drilling Hersh on the dance steps that accompany the lyrics.
“Now, five months later, not only do I still remember every word and body movement,” mused Hersh, “but I can’t seem to get the terribly repetitive chorus out of my head.”
Nor can he forget the experiences he had as a volunteer with the Hospicio de Huerfanos in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Nor does he want to.
Those experiences, said Hersh, “opened my eyes to so much more” than any classroom setting alone could have. “I had never played with kids before, I had never worked with parentless children before, and I had never really been asked to communicate in Spanish for hours on end.”
The children helped “because I didn’t have time to worry about how I sounded, just as long as we could communicate back and forth. They didn’t judge my gringo accent, which allowed me to loosen up and not worry so much.”
Hersh, a modern languages major with secondary majors in English and history, was in Costa Rica studying Spanish at a university. A Jackson-Hope grant to VMI’s Department of Modern Languages and Cultures enabled him to add the element of learning through volunteer work two days a week.
Jackson-Hope, said department head Kathleen Bulger-Barnett, “allows us to place cadets in short-term volunteer positions in which they use their language skills.”
Service organizations such as Americorps, Cross-Cultural Solutions, Bridges to Community, and Humane Borders provide opportunities for cadets to work for good causes while speaking a foreign tongue. In some cases, cadets and professors arrange the volunteer work themselves.
Hersh assisted a full-time teacher of eight children, arriving in the afternoon just after naptime.
“A typical day,” he said, “consisted of regular things kids aged 2 to 4 like to do: play, run around in the courtyard, and snack.
“Volunteering was, as overused and clichéd as it sounds, rewarding. I’d never been a big fan of kids that young, having been a youth referee and dealing with their lack of focus and abundance of energy. However, interacting with my group week after week, learning their personalities, was interesting.
“I certainly understand the patience that goes into managing a group of preschoolers. My time spent there was demanding, frustrating, and terribly gratifying.”
Hersh also says his experience helped broaden his cultural understanding. At first, not knowing how he would be received, he shied away from meeting local residents. However, once the volunteer work began and residents realized he was there to help, contacts increased greatly.
“I was opened up to several new ideas and concepts that I had never been exposed to,” he concluded.