Last Tuesday (the 16th) was the first day I went to my volunteer placement at the Centro Nacional de Educación Especial Fernando Centeno Guell (which is often just called “el Centeno Guell,” as I learned throughout the week!). I was expecting (based on my experience with ELAP in Spain) to learn how to get there, meet the person at the school that I would be reporting to, and have a chance to talk about what I would be doing during my time there. But it didn’t quite turn out that way.
I did learn how to get to the school, which was pretty important, considering that I would have to get there on my own every day. When Andréa (the ISA staff member who came with me) and I got to the school though, it turned out that they weren’t really expecting us and hadn’t received a form they were supposed to have received from ISA. So Andréa and I filled out the form and then left. I didn’t really even get introduced to the volunteer coordinator that I am supposed to report to (I later learned that her name is Doña Lily). It was a little disappointing to have gone all the way there but not have any more idea of what exactly I would be doing during my time here in Costa Rica.
The one cool thing about the outing was that Andréa took the time to show me around San José a little bit. We walked around the city center and she pointed out places like that National Theatre, a couple of museums, a few markets with lots of souvenir shops, and some other similar things. It was nice to have an idea of where to find the touristy types of things if I wanted to, especially the museums. We then went to the second ISA office here (which I hadn’t been to yet) so that I would know where it was for the ELAP meetings that are held every other week.
Saying I was nervous to head to Centeno Guell on Wednesday would be an understatement. Not only did I still not know exactly what I was getting myself into, but I was nervous about getting there on my own. I ended up getting there just fine (I take two buses every morning. It takes about an hour to get from the first bus stop to the school), and then sitting and waiting while Doña Lily figured out what to do with me. After about an hour, Doña Lily took me to the special education department of the school (there is also a department for the blind and another for the deaf/hearing impaired) and dropped me off with the teachers I would be spending the rest of the morning with.
Although I started in a classroom with three teachers and only three boys, it was the most intimidating and overwhelming group that I’ve worked with in the five days that I’ve worked at the school so far. Two of the boys were very autistic (Joel and Aaron) and the other had Down Syndrome (Randy). None of the them had any spoken language skills. Each one of them was a handful in his own way, but I realized pretty quickly that Joel was the most difficult of the three of them. When Kaylin (one of the teachers) was trying to start a lesson about the parts of their face with them, he refused to sit in his chair, and spent a lot of time throwing chairs around the room and pushing things off of the teacher’s desk. On top of that, Aaron kept trying to run away (I’ve been learning that this is a pretty common thing among autistic children).
To be honest, I felt pretty useless in that classroom. I had no idea what I should be doing to help because I have no experience with kids with special needs, especially severe cases like those boys are. For a little over two hours, I basically just stood there and waited to be told when to bring something to a teacher or to lock the door. At one point, Flori (the assistant teacher in Kaylin’s classroom) asked me if I was scared. I answered honestly and told her I was. She then explained to me that these kids were some of the most difficult in the school and that it was okay to be a little scared. If I learned anything that first day, it’s that the people (mostly women) who work in the special education department at Centeno Guell are extremely nice and compassionate. They are so encouraging and friendly, which made going back after that first day so much easier.
After lunch the students and teachers that are there in the morning leave and another group comes in for the afternoon, so I spent the afternoon in a different classroom. I was so relieved to discover that not all the classrooms are as intense as that first one was. In the afternoon I worked with Rebecca’s class, which consists five kids from ages 10 to 13 who are fairly independent. Working with them was night and day from working in Kaylin’s classroom. Most of the time I spent with them they were working on a craft, and later had recess. The most frustrating thing in that classroom was the fact that I had a lot of trouble understanding the students. There was one in particular that kept trying to talk to me and I had no idea what he was saying.
Needless to say, that first day was super overwhelming, especially in the morning. It was definitely scary to be in that room, and I spent some time wondering if I had made the right choice to come here and work in a special education center. I knew it was going to be challenging, but I hadn’t been expecting to be thrown into such an intimidating situation right away.
But despite the ways I felt overwhelmed that morning, there were some moments that were really beautiful, too. Like when Randy looked over at me from his chair and waved at me with his hand by his waist and smiled when I waved back. Or when Aaron came over to me while I was sitting down and hugged me and kissed the top of my head.
There are sweet moments like that every day, and I always look forward to those moments the most. I’m increasingly thankful for the opportunity to be here, and I can’t wait to see what else I’ll learn.