Global Volunteers rock the schoolhouse on Crete

In a small schoolhouse in a small community on the beautiful Greek Island of Crete, surrounded by crystal blue seas, children spend summer mornings playing ball, swinging hula hoops, and practicing conversational English with an international team of volunteers. This was a new adventure for me this summer, and it turned out to be an experience I won’t soon forget.

English lessons provided by volunteers are essential to the community of Gazi, Malevizou, according to Samantha Pinakoulaki, the local program manager for Global Volunteers. Kids need to be able to pass English competency tests in order to get into university in Greece. Public schools don’t offer the classes, so families have to pay for supplemental lessons. Many families don’t have the resources. Sixty percent of the students attending the summer English program are underprivileged. The program is free for all local families.

Ms. Pinakoulaki is from Great Britain. She has been a program manager for Global Volunteers for 10 years now, is a dancer, mother of five, and met her sweetheart, a Cretan musician, while dancing on a world tour 25 years ago. She has lived on the Island of Crete ever since. Some of her children are grown and working or at university, and her youngest is 10. She says she never spoke English at home because she was eager to learn and adopt the Greek language. Her children have all had English lessons through the Global Volunteers summer English program, and all speak fluent English. Two of her children have passed the highest level competency exams, and three of them continue to contribute to the program as interpreters.

Volunteers also support the curriculum in local English schools by providing one-on-one practice sessions in conversational English. According to Pinakoulaki, there has been a 100 percent pass rate on the Michigan syllabus proficiency exams for English school students who supplemented their curriculum with conversational practice with Global Volunteers.

Volunteer teams may be assigned various community projects, explains Pinakoulaki. The program asks that volunteers be flexible and willing to help where help is needed. Besides teaching English, teams have worked on maintenance projects, in gardens, and packed clothing and supplies for refugees. “Greeks are going through a tough time, providing 457,000 refugees safety, healthcare, and food. This is difficult for a country whose own people are struggling. People didn’t have food on their own tables, but they still donated (clothing and supplies for refugees).”

Since 1984, Global Volunteers has served in 202 communities in 34 countries providing a variety of essential services. The summer English school program on Crete serves 250 children annually. Pinakoulaki emphasizes that “We immerse in the culture; it’s cross cultural learning. We work hand-in-hand with the local people. We do the work that is asked of us. We do not impose our way into communities. We only serve where we are invited.”

Jan Mcfarland-Brown is a 61-year-old third grade teacher from Montara, California that served in Gazi in July, 2015. “I had a wonderful time in Crete because our Team Leader, Samantha Pinakoulaki was amazing.  She is warm, friendly and was great at coordinating our team. We worked with the students during the day, made lesson plans in the afternoon and then enjoyed the sights and sounds of Malevizou the rest of the time. The summer school was fun and the kids were great.” Mcfarland-Brown plans to serve with Global Volunteers in Romania in 2017.

Volunteers of all ages and nationalities are welcome and encouraged to participate in the program, and no teaching experience is necessary. The only requirements for volunteers is that they are fluent in English and have a love for children. Past volunteers in the Malevizou program have ranged in age from 3 to 92. According to Pinakoulaki, the program hosts many repeat volunteers, some that come back every year. The program is ideal for university groups and college groups that need to do their hours of service, and families, including grandparents and grandchildren.   Successful volunteers hail from all professions – doctors, lawyers, homemakers, students, and teachers, to name a few.

She notes that usually on the first day walking to school no one talks to each other. Everyone is nervous about their lesson plans. She reminds her team to just focus on getting to know the kids. The goals of the program are to have fun, become ambassadors within the community, wage peace, and promote justice for all. The intention of the program is to give the kids a positive experience with foreigners, and to help them practice conversational English in a fun environment. There is no rigid curriculum and no exams in this summer school. She reassures her teams that the translators are there to help, and fun is the number one goal.

For the relatively short amount of time that I spent here, I felt there was some impressive effort and progress on everyone’s part. I worked with the younger students, ages five through eleven. I so appreciated when the kids learned to say “Good mor-r-r-r-rning Miss Jennifer,” sung with their characteristic tongue roll, when they entered the room each morning. It was rewarding that even the most quiet, reserved students stretched themselves to say the words they remembered whenever I asked; even though some would only whisper, and only if standing right next to me.

I totally cracked up and had a ball learning some Greek words. I guess the kids thought it was only fair. As I quizzed them with English flashcards, I asked them to tell me the Greek word as well as the English word. I often had them pronounce the word, slowly, several times to assure that they had it. They also implored me to annunciate my Greek correctly, and made sure I repeated it until I got it. I’d try, “pou – ka – mi – so,” (shirt). They’d laugh at my feeble attempt, and make me do it again, and again.   There were a few children that would stay in the classroom at recess and grab the pointer from my desk; it was now their turn to teach me the lesson and check my learning!

After serving myself this summer, I have to wonder who benefits more, the kids or the volunteers? The kids got to practice a bit of English, play games, enjoy the company and novelty of foreigners, and earned a lot of stickers. For my part, I learned a bit about Greek and Cretan language and culture, a lot about the power of simply showing up, and received dozens of hugs from little people and our hosts.

The program in Malevizou hosts 11 teams of volunteers annually from March through October. One and two-week assignments are available.

For more information visit Global Volunteers.  (www.globalvolunteers.org)

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