Charlene Mizner had spent time stationed in the Azores, Portugal in her 22-year career with the US Air Force. So when she came across Global Volunteers’ Portugal service program on an internet search for volunteer work abroad, she envisioned giving back to the Portuguese people as they had given to her years ago. In Beja, Charlene and her husband Richard taught conversational English in two different classrooms. In this interview, they reflect on their individual and shared experiences as “volunteer vacationers”.
What were your primary assignments?
Charlene: I taught 7th-graders and students with special needs under the guidance of Nidia and Vanda, two excellent Portuguese English teachers. Rich also taught conversational English but at the Bento Professional School in Beja and two public middle schools in and around the medieval city of Serpa about 30 minutes from Beja.
“I learned what a difference this type of service made compared to being a regular tourist. I was able to experience Beja and Portugal, and become part of the culture and community, rather than just visiting a church or museum.”-Charlene Mizner
What relationships did you form through your service?
Charlene: I was fortunate to form a close bond with one of my teachers, Nidia. We were about the same age, and she opened up to me about her conflicted feelings about teaching in Beja. I shared with her that when I was a nurse, I felt unappreciated in the US, and I understood how she was feeling. It was such a precious moment. She felt comfortable and at ease enough to open up to a “stranger” and share her opinions with me. We talked for quite a while, and the conversation ended with a huge hug!
What did you learn about Portuguese culture?
Charlene: I learned about similarities and differences. For instance, how we (US and Portugal) have the same difficulties when it comes to our educational system. Low wages for teachers, being moved from one school to another, and the social issues. I learned how the Portuguese people live at a laid-back, relaxed, comfortable pace. I found them to be a lovely, vibrant, and friendly people. I learned what a difference this type of service made compared to being a regular tourist. I was able to experience Beja and Portugal, and become part of the culture and community, rather than just a tourist visiting a church or museum.
Rich: I was surprised to learn how teachers are moved around the country to accommodate the needs of the state. Only the senior teachers get to pick where they teach. Of course, there are many similar problems the Portuguese face, as do we in the US. I found the Portuguese people I met very friendly and out-going. The food was great! I knew beforehand how the Portuguese, as a society, eat lunch and dinner much later in the day, compared to us.
“I tell people how the adventure allowed me to see, feel, and even smell the authentic culture of Portugal. The whole service program was genuinely enlightening.”– Richard Mizner
Were there any surprising/memorable moments?
Charlene: Before a special needs class, which I co-taught with another volunteer, Tony, the teacher warned us about behavioral issues among the students. In particular, two boys in the foster care system had anger issues and were a challenge. There were no behavioral issues whatsoever that day, and in fact, the students were not only interested and engaged but wanted to keep asking questions even after the class had finished. When two of the teachers approached us and asked to speak to us, I thought that we’d done something wrong! But I realized they both had huge smiles on their faces. They said they were extremely pleased with how the students had interacted with us, and especially happy with the two foster boys. They were curious to learn what exactly we had shared with them. It was a beautiful moment. We’d made progress!
Did you learn anything about yourself while serving in Beja?
Charlene: Indeed, I did! I learned how much I like teaching and connecting with students. It was fun, especially when I tried to learn a little Portuguese. The students would laugh at my efforts, and we laughed a lot!
Rich: I learned how fortunate I am living in the US and not in a socialist country.
How do you describe your Portugal volunteer vacation to friends and family?
Charlene: I tell my friends and family that, for me, Portugal was an enjoyable learning experience and if they, too, are looking to give back and immerse in a culture, then Global Volunteers is the way to accomplish this. It’s a service adventure!
Rich: I tell people how the adventure allowed me to see, feel, and even smell the authentic culture of Portugal rather than seeing it through the eyes of a “tourist.” I explain how much I enjoyed my time volunteering and experiencing the Portuguese culture. The whole service program was genuinely enlightening.