When I was sixteen years old, I did a service learning program in Panama called Amigos de Las Americas. It was there that I discovered the power of volunteering to expose to you not only aspects of a culture that you would have failed to see before, but also important lessons about yourself. Before I arrived in Spain, I learned that the Center of Modern Languages offers a class that allows you to volunteer through a local NGO. I applied for the class and was ecstatic when I received my schedule in September and learned that I had been accepted into the program.
During our first class meeting, we were able to choose from different volunteer opportunities. I chose to volunteer at a local colegio infantil, the Spanish equivalent of a daycare, preschool and kindergarten. Since I work at a daycare at home, I was interested in seeing the differences between the two schools. In order to complete the required 45 hours for my class, I went to the school, Virgen del Pilar, twice a week for three hours each day and worked with two different classes. On Tuesdays, I worked with the one year-olds and on Thursdays I worked with the two year-olds class. My main role consisted of playing with the kids and helping the teachers to move them from place to place. During lunch, I help the teachers make sure that all of the kids are eating. With the younger ones, this means actually feeding them while with the older ones it means making sure they eat their food instead of throwing it at each other.
The hardest part of volunteering is the same reason I chose to work at Virgen del Pilar in the first place. The school I volunteer at is in a poorer neighborhood, about twenty minutes by bus from the center of Granada. This means that many of the kids who attend Virgen del Pilar receive their main meal of the day there. Because of this, when they eat we have to make sure they eat everything they are given. At first, this was hard for me but as time passed I realized the importance of these kids getting their nutrients and it has become easier.
Another adjustment for me has been the physical contact. In Spanish culture in general, people are more physical with each other, from greeting one another with a kiss on each cheek to standing closer to each other while talking. I never thought before I began to volunteer how this cultural aspect would translate to the school setting. Teachers here touch their kids more than in the United States, literally picking them up to move them, as well as hugging and kissing them. In order for this feeling of shock to disappear, I had to realize was that just because a way of interacting with children is different than what I have been socialized to do, doesn’t make it wrong. These teachers care about their students and Spanish culture allows them to show it in a way we don’t consider acceptable in the States. These teachers also have more students in their classrooms than we allow in the States, especially at such a young age, and so picking up a child who refuses to move when everyone else has to go somewhere makes sense.
At the beginning, the mix of culture shock and a lack of consistency to which classroom I helped in cast a shadow over my experience, but as things became more normal, I came to enjoy the time spent at Virgen del Pilar. Kids take a lot of energy no matter where you are, but they make you laugh too. The best part of my volunteering experience, besides learning so much about Spanish culture, has been the kids.
They each have their own unique trait that makes me smile, whether it’s the fact that they call me mom, that they simply don’t understand the fact that I only half comprehend what they’re saying, or the joy they get from me pushing them around on a bike. Although this experience has made me realize I don’t want to work with kids full time in the future, it reminded me of the importance of having an open mind while working with a place you thought was familiar to you. I have worked in childcare for a handful of years and still, the varying ways things are conducted in Spanish schools taught me concepts for dealing with issues I never would have thought of before. It turns out that experiencing a new culture in a familiar setting can do more than teach you the word for pacifier in Spanish–it’s chupete by the way.