What the Sacred Heart Center Means to Me
My love of languages brought me to the Sacred Heart Center. I majored in French and minored in Spanish at Virginia Union University. Though I had worked many jobs during my career, I never had one in a Spanish-speaking environment. Upon retirement, I was determined to make this dream of mine come true. When I asked around about where to volunteer, I was told that the Sacred Heart Center would be the best place to find what I was looking for.
My first day as a volunteer, I was assigned as an assistant to Don Enrique, the bus driver/maintenance technician at the Center. I accompanied Don Enruque on the bus to bring some women and little kids to the Center where the women were taking English. Don Enrique and I converse almost entirely in Spanish, and I have been able to add a new dimension to the language. In school I learned how to conjugate verbs and make adjectives agree with nouns, which is important. But now I had reached the stage where I could observe the finer points of everyday spoken Spanish. For instance, when Don Enrique pulled the bus into the parking lot and opened the door to let the ladies out for their class, he’d call out, “¡Servidas!” which sort of means, “You have been served.” What Spanish book would teach you something like that? I was also interested in which word Don Enrique used for ordinary objects like screwdriver or trash can. This depends on where in the Spanish-speaking world one grew up, in Don Enrique’s case, somewhere outside of Mexico City. Often I’d be helping him and have to stop and take notes to store in my computer later. There are lots of signs around the Center, and I took notes on them, too. For me, this was language heaven. I know a thing or two about gardening because I did it as a child.
The Sacred Heart Center has a garden which is well-protected by a chain-link fence, but was being under-utilized. One day I declared myself to be the “head gardener,” and people in the Center just went right along with it. They were happy to buy me supplies and found people to help with the work. When I was growing up we did your basic corn-tomatoes-potatoes-yellow squash garden. At the Center we raised things like cilantro, collard greens, kale, parsley, eggplant, zucchini, and peppers, peppers, peppers. We experimented with composting, growing plants in straw bales and burlap bags. I learned about soil testing and the need for raised plots. I normally exercise by walking and riding my bicycle, but gardening required me using a different set of muscles – great exercise for an old man. And here are two things that really blew me away: (1) this garden is right in the middle of a city; and (2) for all the benefits I received from the garden (veggies, free supplies, exercise, knowledge and experience) the folks in the Center were grateful to me for taking on this fun and interesting project.
Another thing I can say about being a volunteer at the Sacred Heart Center is that they feed you well. If I didn’t get some regular exercise, I’d be as big as a house. There are so many festivals and other reasons to celebrate, and, other than all the birthday cakes, the food is pretty nutritious. Hispanic food seems to lack a lot of the salt, sugar, and fat that plagues the processed and fast food that so many of us eat. The people at the Center know how to get me to help out when they need volunteers, like at a fundraising breakfast: just mention that there will be food.
The Sacred Heart Center not only teaches English to Spanish-speakers, but now teaches Spanish to English-speakers at both the beginning and intermediate levels for a cost that I’ve heard compares favorably to what is charged at a community college. I regard this as a critically important outreach to the community. Too many people in this country speak only one language – English – and I think that has a lot to do with the fear and prejudice so many people feel toward immigrants. I take intermediate Spanish and my teacher is Don Sebastián. He’s a human rights lawyer from Colombia and conducts the class totally in Spanish. I started out understanding about a third of what he says, but my comprehension has improved as the class progresses. He is quite creative in his selection of the course material: a heavy emphasis on music with discussion of popular songs from Latin America that we students have never heard before; fables; tongue-twisters; news articles.
I’ve never had a more stimulating foreign-language classroom experience. I don’t think Don Sebastián quite realizes what a great talent he has for teaching Spanish. Becoming a Sacred Heart Center volunteer was far and away my #1 best retirement decision.