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Learning Spanish and Volunteering with Deaf Children in Guatemala

Kate's Guatemala friends, Rosa, Ale, and Laura at LAVOS.

Kate’s students at LAVOSI, a school in Guatemala for deaf children.

Teaching Traveling: Welcome to Massachusetts teacher, Kate, who has taken some AMAZING international travel vacations during her summers.

Kate, tell us about yourself.

Kate: My name is Kate Baldwin and I am a 26-year old from the Boston area. This is my third year working as a speech-language pathologist in a public school. I love my position and I am also very grateful for the summer vacations we have… because these vacations have allowed me to travel!

The last two summers I have traveled to Antigua, Guatemala to volunteer and learn Spanish. I don’t remember why I felt specifically drawn to Guatemala. However, I am grateful that I followed that instinct because I have fallen in love the people, culture, and of course, the food!

TT: Awesome! Tell us more about your summer travels to Central America.

Kate and Rosario, the Mom of the house in Antigua.

Kate and Rosario, the Mom of the house in Antigua.

K: On my first trip to Guatemala, I lived with a family and volunteered at an after school program. Antigua is a hub for Spanish schools, so I also took language classes. However, I learned just as much at the dinner table as I did in my Spanish classes! The family I lived with was wonderful. They rented rooms to foreigners like me, as well as to Guatemalans that traveled to the city for the week to attend school and work.

Needless to say, it was an eclectic household and meals took part in two shifts. With renting a room, three meals a day were included, lunch being the most important. This was new for me, coming home midday to eat lunch… but always worth it. Frijoles negros (black beans) became one of my favorite foods, which was a good thing, because they were served with almost every meal!

Beautiful Antigua, Guatemala, a hub for Spanish schools.

Beautiful Antigua, Guatemala, a hub for Spanish schools.

In between enjoying meals, I went to Spanish class in the morning and then volunteered at an after school program in the afternoon. The program, Semilla de Esperanza y Amor, provided children from a poor community with tutoring and support in completing their homework.

They welcomed volunteers from all over the world. Volunteers pretty much just jumped in and helped with whatever the kids were working on.

Tutoring kids in math while speaking less than fluent Spanish is no small task! However, it was a wonderful experience and I can only say I wish I had more time to have spent there.

My experience in Guatemala was so fabulous that I went back the next summer! I lived with the same family, however, spent my time volunteering at a school for students who are deaf. The name of the school is LAVOSI: Las Voces del Silencio (The Voices of the Silent).

This time my Spanish was somewhat better, but I was faced with the challenge of explaining math in Guatemalan Sign Language! Spending time at this school was very special for me because the people there were so welcoming.

LAVOSI was opened in January 2010 and is one of the few schools in Guatemala that provides education to students who are deaf. The students and the staff are all amazing individuals. They, too, welcome volunteers from all over the world… whether or not you communicate in Sign Language!

LAVOSI: A school for deaf children in Guatemala.

Happy mealtimes at LAVOSI with friendly students.

TT: What a remarkable volunteer opportunity! How did you find this placement?

K: I initially had a friend from the U.S. who was living and working in Antigua and she was an incredibly helpful resource as I began to plan my first trip. She worked for a non-profit organization, CasaSito, which supports local education programs, and welcomed me to come and volunteer.

She also connected me with the family that I lived with during my stay. During my first trip to Guatemala, I was introduced to one of the founders of LAVOSI (where I volunteered on trip #2), who inspired me to return.

TT: How did you fund your summer travels in Guatemala?

Two of Kate's students at Semilla de Esperanza y Amor.

Two of Kate’s students at Semilla de Esperanza y Amor.

K: My trip was funded by personal savings. Fortunately, once you get to Guatemala, the cost of living is very affordable. In addition, if you buy your plane ticket far enough in advance, it can be as low as $300-$400 round trip.

TT: Fantastic advice!

Tell us a powerful memory you have from your summers in Antigua.

K: Oh there are so many memories to choose from! Once while sitting at the kitchen table, playing scrabble in Spanish I felt proud that I could participate.

However, earning points for “ano” (thinking it’s the same as “año”- “year” in English) was only momentarily glorifying before learning I added “anus” to the board!

Delicious frijoles, cooked just right in Guatemala.

Delicious frijoles, cooked just right in Guatemala.

In terms of a proud moment, I would say my favorite was when working with a student who is deaf and she did not understand the concept of “borrowing” in subtraction. I was having difficulty explaining it in Guatemalan Sign Language and I think there was a moment where we both felt a little doubtful of our own abilities.

However, with some creative examples and some help with the translation… she got it! For me it was poignant because we both overcame our own challenge; something that seemed too hard, but in reality was doable.

TT: So wonderful! Tell us how your travels have changed you as a teacher.

K: My travels have impacted me as a teacher because I am now able to better communicate with the parents of my Spanish speaking students. I work in a predominantly Latino community, therefore, this is incredibly important to me. In addition, as a speech-language pathologist, I have a dream of one day being able to provide therapy in Spanish.

TT: How have your travels changed you as a person?

Students dancing at Semilla de Esperanza y Amor.

Students dancing at Semilla de Esperanza y Amor.

K: My travels have impacted me as a person because I have learned that there are many aspects of the Latino culture that I appreciate, for example, the warmth and generosity of the people and the closeness of the family structure. My travels have also made me feel fortunate for many things in my life that I had taken for granted, such as access to education and having a job I love that allows me to support myself.

TT: What advice do you have for aspiring Teacher-Travelers?

K: My advice to those who are dreaming of traveling is to not be afraid of the unknown. If you have a gut instinct, listen to it. There are so many opportunities, places to see, and people to meet!

The barriers of time and money often stand in our way, but, there are lots of people doing it and many different ways to go about it. It’s often not a matter of “if” it is possible, simply a matter of “how.” If you have a dream that excites you, I suggest playing with the idea of, “What if it wasn’t impossible?”

TT: Thanks so much, Kate! Readers, what questions or comments do you have for Kate?

Lindsay and Mike in Bar Harbor, Maine, 2011.
Lindsay: Romantic Travels of a Teacher and Fashion Blogger
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