Danielle in Peru

Danielle is a junior majoring in Spanish in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, with minors in elementary education and psychology. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Internship for summer 2013 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU, and also is participating in SMU’s Engaged Learning program. She is volunteering in a kindergarten for underprivileged children in Cuzco, Peru.

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Teaching kindergarten in Cuzco

In the Andes mountains before a morning horseback ride on a day off from work.

In the Andes mountains before a morning horseback ride on a day off from work.

As I sit in bed wearing three pairs of socks, fleece pajama pants, two jackets, and a hat, I’m debating how I want to start my first blog about volunteering in a kindergarten in Cuzco, Peru. As you can probably tell from what I’m wearing, it’s freezing here at night and in the morning, and many buildings do not have heat or air-conditioning. The altitude of Cuzco is close to 11,000 feet, so during the day when the sun is shining I get sunburn, but in the shade I shiver.

Aside from the climate, it’s difficult to draw my eyes from the mountains, which form a “Kodak moment” from every direction. Whether in the morning when the sun rises or in the middle of the night when I can only see houselights, I’m constantly distracted by the mountains that surround me. I only hope that I can retain the memory of these views forever, because pictures have simply been inadequate at capturing the beauty of the landscape.

On my way to work in the morning I walk on narrow, ancient Incan streets made of stone. These roads are so narrow that sometimes when a car passes I have to stop walking and put my back against the wall behind me to avoid getting hit by the passing car. I also pass women and children in their traditional colorful dress with braided hair. Many women make a living just by posing in pictures with tourists and then asking for money afterward. I myself fell into this “tourist trap” when adorable little girls holding baby lambs came up to me and asked if I wanted to take a picture. Of course I couldn’t resist and quickly said yes; little did I know that I would be expected to pay them for the picture taken on my own camera. With that said, I would have gladly taken the picture knowing that I had to pay a few cents, because I have a hard time passing needy children on the streets.

With the children working on their morning craft

With the children working on their morning craft

When I arrive at the kindergarten, called “Kukuli,” in the morning, I immediately jump in to help the teacher with anything I can before the rest of the students wander into the classroom. The kindergarten has three classrooms total; one for three-year-olds, another for four-year-olds, and another for five-year-olds. I’ve spent most of my time in the four-year-old classroom, with 32 students and one teacher. My role in this classroom varies from teaching English, working individually with confused students, handwriting homework assignments in every notebook due to the lack of a photocopier, and performing any task that facilitates smoother classroom functioning.

One of my favorite parts of the day is “recreo” (recess), because I’m simply able to play with kids! On my first day at work, one of the kids came up to me during “recreo” and said “Cuchuchuuuu” and it didn’t take long for me to realize what he wanted to do. He anxiously stood behind me and gathered a bunch of friends in a single file line behind him to make a train with me at the front. Before I knew it, the entire kindergarten was prancing behind me in a line saying “Chuchuuuu.” They all had huge smiles on their faces, and since then, leading a train has been a regular part of my workday.

Singing the Peruvian national anthem outside the school

Singing the Peruvian national anthem outside the school

Aside from the fun I have with my students, it saddens me that many do not receive the attention they need at home or at school. For example, one of my students has special needs and has a difficult time pronouncing words and coordinating his movements. The reality is that this student’s family will probably never be able to afford to provide him the education and help necessary to cope with his disabilities. Additionally, we had a new student come into our classroom today. He was so shy that he was scared to even whisper his name to the teacher. He also seemed very hesitant to participate in any class activity. I spoke with the teacher who informed me that this student has switched schools and is very shy because his old teacher used to hit him; once I knew this information, it was very easy for me to understand his timid personality. However, learning this information actually surprised me, because from what I’ve seen, the teachers at Kukuli — the school where I work — would never hit a child.

Thus far, volunteering at Kukuli has been a rewarding experience that has allowed me to love, mentor, and teach underprivileged children as well as immerse myself in the culture, language, and educational system of Peru. I look forward to spending many more days with the children and teachers of Kukuli in the scenic mountains of Cuzco.

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