Thursday, August 20, 2015

Social Work Spanish at Pop Wuj: One Student's Experience

Lisa Castagnola participated in the Pop Wuj Social Work Spanish Program in July, 2015.  Lisa is a masters-level social worker at a school in New York City.  Thank you Lisa for sharing your experience with the Pop Wuj blog!

Last year, after five years in community mental health, I transitioned to being a school social worker. Volunteering in Guatemala in a specialized social work program was the best possible way I could have spent my first summer off.   Studying Spanish, working with children and families, raising my cultural awareness, meeting new like-minded people, and soaking in all the beauty of Guatemala was truly a perfect summer adventure.

I spent the month of July improving my Spanish skills in one-to-one classes, building safe stoves alongside the families who would be using them, and working in an after-school program in a rural nearby town.  Pop Wuj, a well-established Spanish school located in the city of Xela, has a unique twist on teaching Spanish to foreigners that is well aligned with the social work perspective.  The school was established with the primary mission of working to meet the many unmet social needs of Xela and the surrounding areas. Teaching Spanish was used as a means of funding community development programs. 

Lisa working with the 4th and 5th graders at the Family Support Center

Lisa and Ilcy on the playground at the Family Support Center
One thing I appreciated about Pop Wuj and their programs is that families served were integrated into the programs. For example, several mothers are now employed by the Centro de Apoyo Familiar (Family Support Center), which houses a before- and after-school program.  I also appreciated that historically Pop Wuj partnered with programs that were already established by the people themselves, versus imposing services from the outsider perspective. 

Recess at the Family Support Center
Pop Wuj places extra emphasis on cultural competency for the medical and social work students who work in their medical clinic, nutrition program, and in the social work program.  During the cultural competency lectures, we were encouraged to reflect on the question, “Why are you here?” We were challenged to figure out for ourselves what compelled us to leave the comforts of our lives in the U.S. to volunteer in Guatemala. After my experience at Pop Wuj and in Guatemala, my answer is a simple on: Why wouldn’t I spend my time in a beautiful country with its beautiful people sharing some of my talents as a social worker and contribute to the better good? That is why I became a social worker in the first place, because I wanted to help and serve and for my everyday work to have meaning. And as is often the case with volunteer work, whatever I gave in my time in Guatemala came back to me ten-fold by what I gained.

Lisa, on a roof working on the chimney for a Safe Stove

The chimney!

A finished Safe Stove in Llanos del Pinal

Pop Wuj and what it stands for is the best embodiment I have encountered of the famous quote, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It was an honor to be a small part of the change Pop Wuj is creating in Guatemala.

Pop Wuj is always in need of social workers of all experience levels and Spanish abilities. I encourage you to take your social work skills international and “Be The Change” well beyond our boarders. 

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