Wednesday September 19, 2012

GREAT BARRINGTON -- Since 2003, Spanish teacher David Heath has taken a group of his students on a trip to a Spanish-speaking region. His obvious goal is to give his students a better understanding of the region's language and culture. But Heath, wanting each trip to go beyond sightseeing, always adds one more goal to the mix: community service.

And so, when he talks about the trip each year to prospective student travelers, he makes sure to drill those points home.

"It's a language learning trip," said Heath, explaining what he tells his students at Monument Valley Regional Middle School before they embark on their journey. "We have five or six meetings as to what to expect. Hopefully, when you come out of it, your Spanish will be better, and you'll help others."

Before the group's trip to Cusco, Peru, this past summer, Heath said the students organized a clothing collection drive for the Peruvian children. Once in Peru, the students stayed with host families, had classes in the morning at Amauta Spanish School, and then worked with local children in the afternoon.

In the beginning, the students had to get used to their new environment.

"When they first get there, there's a lower level of comfort with their surroundings, because everything is new," he said.

But once that new feeling wore off, the students felt energized and got down to the business at hand.

"They had the chance to interact and get to know the locals," Heath said.

Helping the Peruvian youngsters with their homework, playing games like chess, or simply having some fun drawing chalk on the ground or coloring books, the American students got involved.

"We had 17 kids and divided them among three projects. Two of the groups were involved in the afterschool program, and then some of them went to a school for the deaf," Heath said. "With the afternoon projects, (the kids) had to be self-starters. Most of the kids jumped right in."

Heath has fostered this mix of learning and volunteerism for many years, since he traveled to Spain for a mission trip in the 1980s.

That trip "made it so that I was fluent, (and) it gave me a lot of insight into how other people do things," Heath said.

He has also traveled to Mex ico and Spain.

"After the mission trip, I decided I would get certified in Spanish," he said.

On his most recent trip, Heath also gave his students room to relax and explore. They visited Machu Picchu.

"We got up at 3 a.m. to get the bus, and then we got to the train station. It was a really scenic train ride," he said. "We did sightseeing and then climbed the mountain Winu Picchu the native Peruvians have a reverence for the Earth, so we made an offering. It was a day to be remembered. "

Though the trip was hard work, Heath saw it make a difference in his students' lives.

"We were tired at the end, but it was a good tired," he said.

Interacting with children who lived in Peru made an impact on 13-year-old Ana Bloom.

"It has changed my perspective, because everything there and here is different," Bloom said. "We take a lot of things for granted (here). In Peru, some kids just wanted food."

The trip has since inspired Bloom to continue volunteer work in her community.

"I thought maybe I should do it here," she said.

Hearing stories like Bloom's reinforces Heath's mission.

"It's all about building bridges and communicating with people," he said.