Having embarked on their first service adventure with Global Volunteers in 2001 in Greece, Don and Mary Jansiewicz have continued to volunteer internationally as a way to contribute to making the world a better place. They have served in Italy, Cuba, and Peru, and were scheduled to return to Greece in March 2020. Here, they tell of their experiences teaching conversational English and working with local people in service.
by Don and Mary Jansiewicz
Over the last twenty years, the two of us have been on four Global Volunteers service projects: Crete, the “heel” of Italy, Cuba, and Peru. We were all set for another service project in Crete in March 2020, but it was cancelled because of the coronavirus challenge.
We were motivated to participate in these programs for basically two reasons. First, we wanted to communicate the message that Americans want to help make the world a better place for all of us. And secondly, we wanted to discover people and places that were far beyond our experiences of growing up as working-class kids in the Great Lakes states.
Our first trip in 2001 occurred just two months after the trauma our country faced on September 11th, 2001 or what is called 9/11. We were somewhat nervous about taking the trip at that time, but we were so comforted by the kindness that we received from the people on Crete. Our project at the time was to work with University of Crete staff members, in Rethymnon, on English conversation. Our “pupils” were the university’s Vice Chancellor (who wanted more practice in making presentations in English) and two women who worked in publications and accounting. While in the publications office, one of the art professors came in to retrieve prints of his paintings; he offered us the Rethymnon street scene we were admiring—and this continues to bring back memories every time we see it hanging on our wall. One evening, towards the end of our project, we invited our students and their families to join us for food and dancing at our “residence.” It was an unforgettable night.
Some years later, we went to Monopoli in Italy’s boot to work with sixth-graders—a totally different population than in Crete. Most team members assisted in the high school, but we worked with a middle-school teacher on lessons he came up with, and those of our own design. (“Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” was a favorite.) Even though Mary fractured a bone in her foot, we were able (after care from the local hospital, plus a wheelchair and crutches) to continue until the end of our service period.
Several years after that, in 2016, we spent two weeks in Sancti Spíritus, Cuba, and learned more than we could have imagined about this country and its people. Our team was assigned to various tasks, besides evening English conversations. Some worked in community gardens or on the water filtration system, some helping in the kitchen to prepare meals for local people. Don’s job was to help painting buildings associated with our host church, and Mary helped in a small ceramics factory that made large planters used in the public plazas.
After years of tension between our two political systems, we were able on a daily basis to work alongside Cubans to help improve their future as well as their use and understanding of English. One of the most joyful parts of the Cuban experience was an evening when we shared our musical cultures. After enjoying the song and dance of our hosts, our team sang some folks songs, and finished by teaching The Hokey Pokey. They loved it, and you could feel the togetherness between the two peoples. Our team was terrific; and we formed friendships there that have persisted.
Another significant experience was our service project in Peru two years ago. Working together, we taught English conversation to students at La Molina National Agrarian University in Lima. School teachers of English and other local people also attended. Our students here were so motivated and appreciative, they were a delight to work with. We got to know one father and son duo quite well, and were even treated to a tour and dinner by the man and his wife (and we still keep in touch with them).
Over time, we certainly have been able to take some expensive trips around the world and spoil ourselves. However, we feel so much better by giving something of ourselves, rather than just “taking” trips. It makes us believe that we have contributed to making this world a better place.
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