“Langosta,” a little eight-year old voice said quietly. “What?” I replied, confused. “I said, do you have any pets, Oscar?” Again he whispered, “langosta.” I was thrilled that he had finally said something, even if I didn’t understand it.
My junior year in high school I was asked if I would be willing to tutor a second grade student who had just moved from Mexico. I was told that he did not speak a word of English and he was struggling to keep up in class and form positive relationships at school. I was chosen because I enjoy Spanish and someone heard I might be willing to help, so I reluctantly agreed. The problem was that my Spanish really wasn’t very good and I had never tutored someone before. There was no set curriculum, they just wanted me to spend time with Oscar and speak to him in English so that he could gain confidence and practice speaking to someone outside of a classroom setting.
In my imagination, I would build a deep bond with Oscar that would allow him to break out of his shell. In reality, that did not appear to be the case. Instead, after meeting together for a few weeks he still hadn’t said a word. We drew pictures, played card games, and I talked endlessly into the air (which, if you know me, might not surprise you) in hopes that he would respond. Finally, with one word, he gave me something to work with. “Langosta.”
Because I didn’t know what it meant, I asked him to draw a picture. He drew something with a red crayon but I couldn’t figure out what it was. I asked him to show me, and he tried to act it out, but I still didn’t understand. Finally, we took a trip to the computer lab and typed in “langosta” and I started laughing uncontrollably when I found out that he was trying to tell me that he had a pet lobster! When I finally understood, he was so excited – he smiled brightly as he tried to tell me all about it, even when I couldn’t completely understand.
This story illustrates in many ways the reason why I continue to give my time through volunteering. I wish I could say that from that point on Oscar’s life was changed and he followed an upward academic trajectory. To be honest, though, I have no idea if that was the case. What I know is that by giving a few hours of my time, I got to show someone that they were significant and valuable. I got to build a relationship where we could smile, and laugh, and draw pictures, and communicate in all of the ways that were available to us. Selfishly, I also benefited a great deal – I was reminded that using my time to help and benefit others is infinitely more rewarding than using it to serve myself. That experience was one of many that made me fall in love with the idea of giving back, and it was instrumental in my decision to work in the nonprofit sector.
If you are not already volunteering, I would challenge you to do so. Our United Way of Salt Lake Community Schools are always in need of tutors and mentors who want to provide positive role models and academic instruction for children. Sign up to be a volunteer today for the opportunity to invest in a child’s life while reorienting your own around what is really most important. You are no less capable or qualified than I was, so don’t be intimidated – just say yes and sign up today!
Click the link below to sign up and find opportunities.