Volunteering with my niece

When I was in my 20s, I took my first trip as an international volunteer, and when I returned home, my career and priorities did a total 180. So I couldn't wait to find out how volunteering internationally would change my 9-year-old niece. It was going to be Callie's first time in a different country, her first time learning a new language, and her first time committing to in-depth volunteer work. With the help of Babbel—an online language learning tool provided by CCS—a suitcase filled with clothes and pictures of home to show our new friends, and a little bit of healthy nerves, we boarded the plane for Guatemala for our shared adventure.

Small but profound moments really stood out for me. Like the first time we entered our volunteer work assignment at a school. We were teaching English to kids that were the same age as Callie. I was so proud to see her getting bombarded with questions like, "Where do you live?", "Do you have pets?", and "Do you have brothers and sisters?" And I was even more proud to see that she was holding her own, even in a new language.


Another highlight was when we visited a Mayan school, and a local student took Callie by the hand during recess and became her guide, and her friend, for the day. It reminded me that friendship truly knows no borders.

Then there was the time we worked with a kindergarten class and Callie was able to help as an assistant to the teacher, leading the class in a round of Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes, teaching songs in English, and teaching colors.

And there were so many other memories and experiences. Walking down the main boulevard on a Sunday afternoon, trying the never-ending stream of interesting juices (pineapple skin and cashew, to name a few) lovingly prepared by the cooks, and even visiting Mayan ruins.

We both returned home with a new sense of friendship and appreciation for Guatemala and its people. I was able to immerse myself in a really meaningful way in a new culture, while creating lifelong memories and a special bond with my niece. For Callie, her classroom expanded from one room to the world, including new language skills and a huge sense of accomplishment.

As I reflected on my experience, I asked Callie to tell me what really stood out for her, and here's what she said:

"I made friends, like Natalie, even though I didn't understand them at all. Having a friend that speaks a different language is cool!"

For me, a niece that looks at a map of the world and sees friendship, not borders, is what changes everything. And that's the best gift I could ever receive.


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