For a couple of weeks now, I’ve been fortunate to have been provided with the opportunity to work closely with an organization, Cuidando Ángeles, that helps provide physical therapy and specialized education for children suffering with cerebral palsy. The organization is staffed by a couple of employees of the organization as well as by a couple of rehab specialists that focus on the physical rehab.
I was given this opportunity to volunteer with the organization after realizing that my Spanish classes were not exactly what I wanted to learn from this study abroad experience. Upon taking the Spanish placement exam, I was placed in the highest level Spanish class and found that many of the lessons that took place were focused on very colloquial Mexican Spanish vocabulary and subject matter. Although these lessons were extremely interesting, I found myself constantly wondering if there was ever going to be a particular time where the majority of the information being taught in these classes would be useful for what I wanted to do in the future. Therefore, I expressed my thoughts to Dr. Rankin and soon enough, she mentioned to me the opportunity in volunteering with Cuidando Ángeles.
Volunteering at Cuidando Ángeles was the ideal opportunity for me to utilize my Spanish skills and effectively learn how to communicate. However, this was presented with its own set of obstacles. First of all, this meant that I had to attempt to communicate with children who had difficulties in speaking and most of the time replied with various sounds and grunts. On top of that, any form of communication that I had would be via a language I had started learning in middle school. Consequently, the challenges presented by effective communication would be something that I’d have to overcome in order to be successful both in my volunteering work as well as in terms of personal growth.
Now, I want to dive into the details of what my specific role was and what I learned from the experience. Because I replaced my morning Spanish classes with the volunteering program, I’d go to the organization at 9AM and leave around 1PM. For some days, I’d end up spending the afternoons as well if there was no lecture/seminar or if they were in need for my help. My primary role at the shelter revolved around education and having fun activities for the kids rather than being a part of the physical therapy; however, I was able to watch the rehab specialists work with each individual child and learned a lot about the fragility and muscular effect cerebral palsy had. Education involved reading children’s books to the kids, emphasizing specific vocabulary words or asking the kids to identify and point to specific vocabulary from a picture book. For example, I would read a children’s book about farm animals, while emphasizing the different animals such as la vaca (cow), la cabra (goat), or el gato (cat). Later I would ask them to go one step further and point to the animal that I say and see if they would be able to properly identify the animal correctly. Other than the education activities, I also helped out with the “fun activities” which includes finger painting (my favorite!), watching educational YouTube videos, and playing in the ball pit. Many of these activities are self-explanatory; however, I realized that each activity had an underlying significance. Finger painting was a guided exercise where I would physically hold the hand of the kid and move their arms to reach the finger paint and then to draw within the borders of the color book. By doing so, the kids will physically get a wider range of motion than they are used to. YouTube videos involves learning about various things including the various parts of the face, such as la nariz (the nose), la boca (the mouth), los ojos (the eyes). Watching these videos stimulates the children’s own interest in identifying the various parts of their face, which helps with fine motor skills. Finally, what I mean by playing in a ball pit is exactly what you might be thinking about. It’s exactly what kids slid into at the bottom of the slide at Chuck E. Cheese’s when they were kids. It’s a pit literally filled with small plastic balls. This ball pit allows for the kids to build a wider range of motion by letting them freely move throughout the pit.