After Abroad | ISA Service-Learning in Chile

An interview with Ginny Preston, an ISA Service-Learning alumna. Ginny participated on an ISA Intensive Month + Service-Learning  program in Valparaíso, Chile in Spring 2016.

Salt flats in Bolivia. Photo provided by Ginny Preston.
Salt flats in Bolivia. Photo provided by Ginny Preston.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a retired Speech and Language Pathologist.  I mostly worked in public schools for 44 years.  After raising and launching two boys, I decided to combine traveling with volunteer work.  This past winter, I went to Valparaíso, Chile through ISA.  I lived with a local family, attended intensive Spanish grammar and Chilean culture classes at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, and then spent the month of March volunteering at a Special Education Center, Centro Bellavista, as a service-learning project.

Can you share more information about your career path as a Speech and Language Pathologist?

I became interested in Speech Pathology when I volunteered at a Rehabilitation Center one summer in high school.

I decided to pursue that career in college. I majored in Speech Pathology as an undergraduate at Syracuse University in 1969, and obtained a Master of Science in the same field at the University of Wisconsin in 1970.

Did you have international volunteer experience before your ISA Service-Learning program?

I volunteered internationally five times before Chile.  My first volunteer work was with a team of specialists.  We went to Tesla, Bosnia and used university students as our translators. We taught local educators about autism, and arranged visits to the homes of children with autism. We set up a classroom and trained Bosnian teachers to work with students with autism. How wonderful it was to see newly trained teachers taking over and conducting  lessons!

My second volunteer work was in a small township in South Africa.  A friend and I learned about a woman who started a private school there.  We lived with her and helped teach the students at an English-only primary school. I feel we were able to demonstrate to the teachers how you can do great things with just minimal materials. 

My third trip was to Mongolia.  Through a friend of a friend, I learned about a program for special needs students.  We traveled to remote areas of the country in a 9-seater plane to test and find students who would be appropriate for this program.  With a relative, these identified children came to the center in the capital city to learn techniques and treatments for their individual problems. After a three-week session, they returned home equipped with new ideas, equipment, and methods of teaching.  They came back to the center in several months for a check-up.  My most vivid memory was taking a young boy and his grandmother on the plane with us back to the center. He was unable to walk.  When I saw him at the center three days later, he greeted me with a big smile as he came running towards me in his wheeled walker!

My fourth trip was to Turkey.  Through an organized volunteer program, I lived with a family and worked in Istanbul in a school for children with autism.  Because of the language barrier, I taught with teachers who could speak English. Fortunately, the Speech Therapist was among them.  I presented  a talk to the teachers through an interpreter, and was able to make suggestions and comments to all the teachers I observed.  I loved seeing how successful they were with these challenging students.

My fifth volunteer trip was to Morocco.  I went with a volunteer organization which provides housing, meals, transportation to work sites, and staff to help you.  I was assigned to an orphanage for severely disabled, abandoned individuals who were from 2 to 40 years old.  Most of these students had very little language, and I primarily fed them and provided recreation.  It was a very humbling position, and I learned to greatly value life in its many forms.

Glacier at the end of Lago Grey in Torres del Paine. Photo provided by Ginny Preston.
Glacier at the end of Lago Grey in Torres del Paine. Photo provided by Ginny Preston.

How did you choose your service-learning program in Valparaíso?

I had visited Valparaíso in 2009, and loved the city.  I always wanted to go back there.  When I was deciding where to volunteer in 2016, Valpo was my first choice.  I googled “volunteering in Valparaíso,”  and the ISA Service-Learning website came up.  Centro Bellavista, a school for special education students, sounded perfect for my experience.  There was only one problem: they required a high intermediate level Spanish.  Before my program, my skills were low intermediate at best.  ISA suggested that I do an intensive month of Spanish language before my service-learning work,  so I did.

What were the similarities and differences of working as a Speech and Language Therapist in the U.S. and as an Aide at a Special Education Center in Chile?

As a Speech and Language Therapist in the US,  I usually worked with small groups of students who came out of their classrooms to my therapy room.  I also did whole-class lessons in mostly special ed. classes.  I evaluated students, held meetings with teachers and parents, consulted with staff, wrote thousands of reports,  and did mountains of paper work. At Centro Bellavista, I basically was an Aide and co-taught two classes – a morning class of 4 boys with autism and an afternoon class of 12 mentally challenged older kids.  The teachers were outstanding – friendly, knowledgeable, positive, affectionate, and patient.  I felt very lucky to be involved with them and their students.  The speech therapist did not start working with the students until after I left.  But I did talk to her, compared ideas and techniques, and was impressed with what she would be doing for these students, teachers, and families. I feel I made important relationships with the students in my classes and with the teachers and Aides with whom I worked.  The teachers and I had mutual respect for one another, shared ideas and observations about the students, and connected on personal levels as well.

What did a typical day look like at the special education center in Valparaíso?

At the Special Education Center, I arrived at 8:30 am and stayed until at least 4:30 pm, sometimes later.  We followed the same routine in the classrooms every day:  opening free time, schedule review, work time, outdoor recreation,  hand washing, snack, teeth brushing, work time, ending free time.  We had an hour break between the morning and afternoon classes for lunch.

What is next for you?

Next for me are more volunteer trips each year.  I hope to go to another Spanish-speaking country next year to keep up my language skills.

The World Awaits…Discover it.

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