By Sheila Kelley
Last fall, I had the opportunity to travel to Nicaragua as a representative of the Sister Islands Association, with the goal of volunteering as an aide in high school English classes at two schools on Ometepe. I returned to Bainbridge 2½ months later with a head full of memories and a desire to return to do more.
In preparation for my Ometepe experience, I spent a week and a half in Granada, Nicaragua, at the Casa Xalteva Spanish School, where I tried to absorb as much survival Spanish as possible. This also turned out to be an invaluable entry into the customs and culture of Nicaragua.
On a drizzly Saturday, I boarded the ferry for Ometepe. I was relieved to see Dora Gutierrez, who staffs the Sister Islands office, waiting patiently for me on shore in a recognizable BOSIA T-shirt. After an incredibly rough ride to La Flor, we arrived at the home of Sandra Gonzales Paizano and her son Osmon. They welcomed me into their family and provided an integral link to the high school at La Flor.
On Monday morning, much to my surprise, Director Miguel Cruz and English teacher Petrona Mendoza presented me to the student body with the expectation that I say a few words to the students—in Spanish, of course. I managed to stumble through a few unprepared sentences and became obvious to the students that there would be little Spanish spoken by me in the English classes. After I spent several sessions observing classes, Petrona and I developed a plan to structure a portion of each class so that I could help students practice conversational phrases. I would also reinforce the lessons through songs and games whenever possible.
In addition to participating in the English classes at La Flor, I had the good fortune to be included in the festivities of Planting Day, when the students planted trees to beautify the school and a local park. Another highlight was the Day of Alimentation, when students made class presentations on Nicaraguan food specialties. The faculty including me) had the awesome task of sampling the dishes and judging the authenticity and creativity of the entries.
I transitioned to the community of Los Angeles at the beginning of November. At the home of the Carlos Jimenez Gomez family, I was welcomed by Carlos, his wife, Argelia, their sons Carlos and Ernesto, and their 2-year-old daughter, Karla.
Maggie and Dora accompanied me to the high school in Los Angeles to meet Director Emer Luiz and English teacher Diego Quintana. After consultation with Diego, we adopted a similar plan to use a portion of each class for conversational practice, interspersed with songs and games to reinforce classroom instruction. Graduation came in early December with a memorable ride to the graduates’ Mass in the rain on the back of Director Cruz’s motorcycle. Following the Mass, I walked in a procession with the graduates and their families to the next town for the graduation ceremony and the presentation of awards, where I was honored to be seated with the dignitaries at the front.
The directors and teachers were enthusiastic in their feedback. They said they appreciated the new ideas and the opportunity to have a native speaker in the classroom, but felt that four weeks was too short a time.
I often think about my experiences on Ometepe and smile as the memories filter back to me. I loved watching Argelia make fresh cheese every day and was amazed to see Carlos transform a tree into a table with a chainsaw in less than four hours. I remember the rush of my first motorcycle rides at the age of 68 over deeply rutted, rainwashed roads while I was holding on with one hand and carrying a giant water bottle or a sack in the other hand. I remember being a little disconcerted to find people standing at the open windows and looking into the class. Then I realized that they were not trying to be a nuisance, just trying to get a little more practice in English. I can still hear the kids outside of school calling out in English “Good-bye, Ms Kelley!”
I am grateful to BOSIA for coordinating the home stays and contacting the schools to make this volunteer opportunity possible. Would I do it again? Yes, absolutely!