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International Deaf & Hearing Alliance’s Alternative Spring Break Program in Queretaro, Mexico

During spring break, the International Deaf & Hearing Alliance worked with CAM Helen Keller, a primary and secondary school for deaf and disabled students. Each IDHA member was placed in a different classroom, ranging from preschool to high school, to provide additional support to the incredible educators and staff at the school. In preparation for our service-learning experience, we learned Mexican Sign Language (LSM), but were able to practice and learn more LSM during our experiences. We are extremely grateful to CAM Helen Keller and the Deaf community of Querétaro for welcoming us into their community to build relationships and engage in this intercultural service-learning experience. The following is a compilation of various members’ reflections on their experiences working with the Deaf community of Queretaro.

Jazmine Johnson

“Working with deaf communities in Queretaro, Mexico has broaden my perspective on people with disabilities. Before going on this trip, I did not take into consideration how huge the deaf community is and the magnitude of the struggles that the students face. It went beyond just their disability but the resources that were afforded to them, in regards to their education and family support. This humbling experience also made me more aware of my identities that I hold and made me more cognizant of all the resources that I am privy.

While I enjoyed my interactions with the students, I am really valued my time with the teachers as well. One of the teachers spoke a little bit of English, and she would inform me of a lot of the issues that the students and staff faced. One in particular really took me by surprise. For instance, a lot of parents do not like to accept that their children are deaf. As a result, they don’t try to learn sign language to communicate with them. I was astonished by this information because I would expect a parent to want to better communicate with their child. Sign language is very important as people who are not hearing should still be able to communicate with others and sign language is their medium to do so.

I didn’t know what to expect when working with the deaf community and other students with disabilities. I just know that my goal was to be engaging and open, despite the communication barrier. I really just wanted to help the students to the best of my ability and build a relationship with them. I am glad that I kept those expectations in mind, when first visiting the school. I was so nervous at first because I only knew a little bit of Spanish and sign language. However, I didn’t let that stop my efforts in getting to know the students. I’m so glad that I didn’t let my language barrier to affect my interactions and engagement with my class. This experience is one that I never will forget and I can’t wait to continue working with the deaf community.” – Jazmine Johnson

IDHA members learning LSM (Mexican sign language) at the Cross & Beat festival activity tent with other members of the Queretaro community.

Julia Alexander

“Going into this trip, I was unsure what to expect. I had never traveled outside of the country without my family and I had never been on a service trip, so this was a completely new experience for me. However, I was excited to learn more and I thought that it would be a nice challenge and push me out of my comfort zone. I hoped that in going to Queretaro and volunteering at the Cam Helen Keller school, I would be able to have a positive impact, be helpful to the teachers and learn more about the community there.

It was so amazing to be a part of this trip. Not only did I feel as though I was able to assist at the school, I also learned so much about the deaf community in Queretaro. It was amazing to see how all of the children in my classroom actively wanted to learn, and helped each other grasp new concepts. It was so different from schools in America, where everything is about getting good grades and competition between students. The sense of community learning was a big theme. All of the activities enforced community learning. In everything that the class did, students were constantly learning and collaborating with each other; whether they were presenting, doing a group project, or simply working on math problems on the board. This was a new style of learning that I thought was very interesting because it led to a more engaged class, and excitement in helping fellow classmates learn new things.

Though it was difficult to communicate with the [students at CAM Helen Keller] on the first day, as the week went on, I was able to pick up on their signs with more ease, and better understand what they were trying to communicate to me. Also, the kids were so patient in ensuring that I understood what we were talking about, so it made it really easy to learn and comprehend what they were trying to get across.

I feel as though this trip has made me more open to new experiences. It has been so amazing to learn about the deaf community in Queretaro, and get some insight into their lives. I had such a great time getting to know the kids and am so grateful for this opportunity to contribute and learn more about this special, unique community.” – Julia Alexander

Malikah Pasha

“Imagine being able to witness a orangey salmon sunset every single day, smiles welcoming you into the door, the freshest of food swimming down your belly, fruit trees growing outside your classroom, warm and cool colors of homes, buildings, schools, and so much more. This was Querétaro.

Querétaro was the first time I left home and I can say it was one of the most welcoming and beautiful city I’ve ever been to.While Querétaro is a very homogeneous city, some of the things were a culture shock. Being that few Black people travel or even go to Mexico—especially small cities like Querétaro—everyone continually gazed at me and even touched my hair. It felt very uncomfortable, but at my school knowing that my children have many questions, I felt comfortable enough to show them my hair and teach them a little about Black hair. That experience was both a win for the both of us, because while they were always teaching me, I got to teach them about America and things about myself.” – Malikah Pasha

Carmela Garita

“Volunteering is something I enjoy doing, but in the opportunity that I was given this past week, I was able to discover a joy for working with people more closely. The first day in the classroom with the sixth graders, I didn’t know exactly what to expect. I soon started to learn that the kids were really patient with me because they quickly found out I barely knew LSM. From that first day I made it my goal to know more sign language in order to have, at least, small conversations with the kids. The rest of the days at the school got better progressively. I think what also made my experience at the school enjoyable and great was the staff there, especially Josefina, the teacher I was placed with. She would try her best to get me involved with everything the students were doing, and would even interpret her class lessons in order for me to be up-to-date to what they were learning. Something else I enjoyed were the mini-quizzes at the end of the day she would give me. This consisted of telling her what a certain sign meant in Spanish, or just me showing her what new signs I learned throughout the day. If I was given the chance to go back to Queretaro and volunteer with these kids, I would say yes in a heartbeat. I also need to give credit to the people who were in this trip, that made this such a great experience for me. I felt that there was never a moment where someone was left alone because everyone was inclusive, and willing to do different thing with different people. We all for sure got to know each other on a deeper level, rather that just knowing their name and the person who we always saw at weekly meetings. I can’t imagine having a better experience without the people and the circumstances we were all given.” – Carmela Garita

Rebecca Lee “I went to the first IDHA meeting after seeing the poster at Festifall was because I thought sign language was cool. Now it is a completely different story. I realized both through interacting with new friends and with the students at the school that knowing sign language is having an ability to communicate with people who often feel unable to do so themselves. Deafness can cut people off from others around them because of the unfortunate rarity of people who know sign language. Now that I have experienced this culture and this community, I feel driven more than ever to continue learning and improving upon my own skills in sign language. I want to continue practicing LSM and build my fluency, but I also want to start learning ASL. If I were to do so, I might be able to use a signed language in my own community, which would be rewarding both for myself and for those I would be able to communicate with. In addition to discovering a passion that I have for sign language, I really believe that this experience made me a different person. I am more patient, not only with others, but with myself. I am truly thankful that I had the opportunity to travel to Querétaro this year. The experience helped me to grow as a person, and to help my interest in sign language grow and thrive. I hope that someday soon I will be able to return to Querétaro. Even if a trip back is not in my future, this city and its people will forever hold a special place in my heart.” – Rebecca Lee

 

By Brandon Bond

Yazmyn – Oaxaca, Mexico

Hi everyone! My name is Yazmyn and I’m a Junior studying Biopsychology, Cognition, and Neuroscience with a minor in Community Action and Social Change. This past Spring I was given the opportunity to study abroad in Oaxaca, Mexico with the Spanish for Health Professionals Program through the UM School of Nursing for a month.

Going abroad to a foreign country for a month left me with mixed feelings before and after. All the time before I departed I did my best to prepare, reading blogs, quadruple checking my packing list, as well as talking to any and everyone who has left for an abroad trip. At the time, I thought I knew everything I needed to know, and still felt prepared, but little did I know what I was in for. Being dropped in any foreign country for a long period of time is nothing you can ever prepare yourself enough for. When I landed, under all my excitement was an underlying fear of the unknown. I was in a country where I was obviously the minority, (which really opened my eyes to how truly America is a melting pot) as well as I barely knew the language. Even the most trivial things we’re challenging.

Last day of Classes with our Maestros

Communication is something that is very key in any situation, and me not being fluent made it very difficult. Through out my time I learned to communicate in different ways with the locals as well as with my fellow participants. Being forced to fabricate different ways to get your point across, really helped me when it came to solving problems, as well as everyday conversation.

Overall as a leader I grew in a plentiful amount of ways. Lastly, the way I think I improved most would be my overall confidence. Being around people I am not comfortable with makes it hard to open up. And within the month I felt more comfortable and my confidence increased tremendously. Through this experience it empowered me to take control of the situation and always be confident in myself. Confidence is a key trait to being an effective leader, because people don’t like to follow uncertainty. And I’m glad I was able to be challenged and in the end over come.

Tacos con Quesillo

During this time I was able to experience all different parts of Oaxaca. Oaxaca is known as the food capital of Mexico, and during the time I took advantage of trying all the different types of cuisines. Including their delicacy Chapulines, which we know as cooked grasshoppers. All through out the markets people sell different types of Chapulines, tiny to giant, seasoned with different spices to no spice, and either grilled, fried, or broiled. It was common to just snack on (like Sunflower seeds to us), or use as an ingredient in cooking (adds a little crunch). Being the food capital comes with so much more than cooked grasshoppers. My favorite was the Oaxacan cheese (Quesillo) , it was put on top of most dishes as you can see on the left. But other foods Oaxaca was known for include Mole, Tlayudas, Chocolate, Tamales, to start.

During the week when I wasn’t enjoying all the delicious food Oaxaca had to offer, I was at class at the Instituto Cultural Oaxaca (ICO). Anyone is able to enroll in there classes and programs, and because it we had very diverse classes. ICO is where we took all our classes, left for our cultural excursions, and more. A typical day for the first 2 weeks consisted of an intensive Spanish Class for 3 hours then conversation hour in which we spoke with our group about any topic as long as it was all in Spanish. Then we would have 2 hours for lunch, in which I got to try all the cuisine, and sometimes take a nap. Next we had Intercambio where we were assigned a local, who was trying to learn English. We would then split the time up, half speaking English, and the other half speaking Spanish. And lastly we would spend the last 2 hours of our day in Medical Spanish course where we covered all different aspects of Medicine in Mexico (from traditional medicine, type of health facilities, and more).

After classes, we would eat and explore the town. Since we all stayed in homestays, we learned from our Oaxacan families where the safest places to go were. My go to spot would have to be the centro, Zócalo, which was a market full of food, handi

Church of Santo Domingo

crafts, and clothing just to name a few. Outside of the centro of Oaxaca, many people live in the surrounding villages where their indigenous culture were still maintained. It was common for people to travel daily to these markets in order to sell their craft, and make the money needed for them to provide for their families. In the centro there were also more store fronts, restaurants, and beautiful churches. On the right is the famous Church of Santo Domingo and a glimpse of a customary wedding ceremony.

Last day volunteering at Cuidando Ángeles

Cuidando Ángeles

For the second half of the month instead of going to intensive Spanish in the morning, we volunteered. My volunteer sight was Cuidando Ángeles (Caring for Angels), which was a physical therapy facility which specialized in children with cerebral palsy. Through this experience I got to utilize my Spanish skills, as well as help and engage with the children at the center. While there, we would help the kids with the the activities everyday, from dancing, to painting, to stretching and sense stimulation.

On the weekends we went on excursions to different cultural sites. And during this time I think I grew the most in my leadership skills. Being in an unfamiliar environment with out structure provided ample room for growth, and I am so glad I got the opportunity to participate in this program. Wherever you go, Go Blue!

‘Block M’ on the step of the Mitla Ruins

Jessica – Amristar, India

I am incredibly thankful for the opportunity to go to India to learn from such amazing people and the inspiring institution that Harmandir Sahib (The Golden Temple) is. I am indebted to the Temple for all of the knowledge that I acquired while there. I did not know that working with hundreds of other people to cook a meal for thousands of people could be so cohesive and easygoing. Stress and chaos is nonexistent in the Temple even though they are accomplishing near-impossible tasks daily. This taught me that there really never is reason to stress out because it only inhibits one from performing at his or her best level.

The Golden Temple is the best example of sustainability that I have ever seen and I am enthusiastic to implement what I learned from being there. They have nearly zero food waste because what is served there is considered to be “God’s food” so it is shameful to throw any of it away. Viewing all food as holy would be a great way to help curb waste here in the United States. Additionally, the only utensil that is used at the Temple is a spoon. Here in the U.S. we usually provide forks, knives, spoons, and napkins without making the effort to think about if they are necessary or not. I am definitely going to incorporate this thinking when I make decisions about planning events with food.

Something that really surprised me is that Hindus consider the Harmandir Sahib their second home. Many poor Hindus slept at the Temple for up to a few months and it is not common in American culture to feel so welcomed in a religious place that is not of your own faith. One thing that I really wish I could explain to my family and friends is that all religious facilities here should be as open and welcoming to those of other faiths are in India. The poor would be much better off if free community meals were not contingent upon being a part of the religion or hearing a sermon. Recognizing everyone as a child of God and treating them accordingly is an aspect of most world religions, yet practice of this idea in Western religious spaces is shaky.

WeRead – Detroit, MI

The students are all seated in their assigned groups, patiently awaiting our arrival. When we walk in the classroom we are stunned. Everyone is where they need to be and they are on time. It’s a strange feeling to walk into the calmness rather than the chaos that normally categorizes our Friday afternoons at Mark Twain. But, it’s quite wonderful to find out that after all the stress of trying to organize classrooms and communicate with teachers over the course of the year, our efforts appear to be moving in a positive direction.

One of the biggest challenges that WeRead as an organization faces is communication with the school administration with Mark Twain. Because of high staff turnover, we rarely see the same teachers, principal and vice principal year after year. In the three years that I have been part of this organization, there has been a new principal each year. We must form a new relationship and establish the credibility of our organization with each person. The lack of communication between the administration and teachers also inhibits our effectiveness, although it is something that is mostly out of our control. In the beginning of the year, one of the board members would email the administration each week to remind them we would indeed be arriving on Friday afternoon to work with the kids. However, this often led to miscommunications with the classrooms because the administration would not always inform the teachers of our confirmation. This led to challenges because sometime we would show up to the school and the students would be on a field trip or would be in a classroom different than what they told us, and it would end up wasting our times and theirs. One way we attempted to change this problem was by talking to the teachers in person as well as including them in our weekly emails. The emails helped to ensure that the class would indeed be at the school that day and would not be on a field trip or didn’t have a day off. By talking to the teachers, we were able to smooth out classroom location. For example, in the 5th grade classroom, the students tended to be late because they were coming from their science class. After talking to their teacher, Ms. Brandon, we brought up the issue and resolved to meet the students in their homeroom, because it was closer to their science classroom. These small problems emphasized the importance of communication and honesty. We had to find ways to talk with the teachers and administration and let them know the challenges that we were encountering. It ended up paying off though, as we finally had a smooth arrival at the end of the year.

As many a WeRead participant will attest, we do what we do “for the kids,”. The chaos, time and energy put into our organization is all worth it when we walk into the classroom Friday afternoon and are welcomed with cheers and smiling faces. We are able to continue what we do thanks to the generous funding provided by groups such as the Barger Leadership Institute.