Volunteering with kids in Merida
Jack may be pre-med, but his ELI adventure in Mexico didn’t have anything to do with medicine.
“Someday I may become a pediatrician” Jack says. “But in the meantime, I wanted to improve my Spanish, get to know Mexican culture, and connect with children. The Youth Initiative seemed like a perfect fit.”
And it was: Jack’s past experience as a Big Brother volunteer who also worked with kids in China and Mongolia made him an ideal candidate for The Youth Initiative -- ELI’s low cost placements geared at helping children in need.
Soon, the Denison University undergrad was off to Merida for a six week stay in the lovely colonial city on Mexico’s fabled Yucatan Peninsula. He was assigned two placements – One was at a rehabilitation center for young kids with disabilities, cancer, and autism. The second location was at a Merida facility that served neglected or orphaned teenagers. The placements made for a long, but fulfilling day.
“There was so much to do - everything from teaching English to playing of games and soccer, which also depend on where I was working.”
Looking back on it, Jack says experience isn’t necessary for these volunteer opportunities - but you do have to be flexible and enjoy working with kids. Here, he describes overcoming uncertainty and a bit of a language barrier while working with disabled children:
“Every day we were paired with kids: one with a disability and the other one without. During my time there, I was paired with two 9-year old twin sisters, Vicky and Vale. Deep down I was nervous because it was my first time taking care of a disabled child and only speaking Spanish. Surprisingly, the twins really helped: they stepped in to translate when needed, they gave assistance to our other friend who was disabled, gave me hugs, asked me how to say different things in English, and taught me a lot of Spanish words! I was very happy and surprised that they were so kind. Every day they kept asking me, “Why do you like to help kids?" This made me think and reflect on myself deeply when I was there… kids give me joy, energy, and just a sense that the world can become a better place if there are role models to help everyone reach their potential. What I had said must have made an impression on Vicky and Vale because they told their mom about me, where I am from, and why I came to Mexico to volunteer. Afterwards, their mom connected with me on Facebook so that I can remain in contact with the girls in the future and see their success.”
As much as he learned from disabled children, it was Jack’s work with teenagers that became a highlight; he felt that’s where he made the biggest difference.
“I’m a Buddhist, and I got this idea that one day I would teach the kids how to meditate. It’s such a good way to focus, relax, and concentrate on your goals.”
He laughingly remembers teaching the kids Thai prayers. Admittedly, it seemed like a bit of a stretch at first.
“They fidgeted a lot and giggled.”
But then something clicked.
“By the end of my six weeks in Mexico, the kids themselves suggested we meditate. They spent an hour meditating while being silent, focused, and calm. I was very impressed!”
When he wasn’t working, Jack enjoyed spending time with his host family, which quickly made him a part of its daily life.
“We would go to the gym and run together. Similarly, I also helped do the laundry and cooked for dinner. On the weekends, the family would take me to the beach, different Mayan ruins. We spoke Spanish all the time -- had to, since my host mom spoke no English!”
Yes, his Spanish got pretty good, pretty fast; his work with Merida’s children was admired and respected; his connection to his host family is firm. The volunteer experience was all that Jack hoped for.
So If you’re traveling in the Yucatan and come across English-speaking young people who know some Thai prayers and enjoy meditation, you know who may have been involved.
An ELI-er named Jack.
Today, this multi-talented student is off on another adventure: he’s studying abroad in Dubai, learning Arabic, biology, physics, and among other courses. He wants to pursue more opportunities to work with children in need and to study international peace and sustainability projects before taking the MCAT exams and hopefully going on to medical school.