Every Thursday, I’m a volunteer English teacher at a very special and one of a kind place, the CEPI center. Roughly translated CEPI stands for ‘centers of immigrant participation and integration’, and they are home to hundreds of users from all over the world, where mostly low income families go to for free assistance in everything from psychological treatment, job placement, education, legal assistance, day care and pretty much anything else you can imagine. It’s all free, sponsored by the government, run by some extremely hard working and wonderful people, and almost entirely supported by volunteers. To paint you a little picture, a family of four immigrants without papers and without a job and sadly sometimes without any means of supporting themselves visits the CEPI, and while the mom and dad are attending a session for job placement and legal advice, the kids are being well taken care of at the center’s day care, taking dance or guitar lessons, at a scouts meeting or at summer camp. After the meeting the parents might also join in on the activities by attending cooking classes, workshops for women, sessions on how to write your CV, Italian, French or English classes (where they get to meet yours truly!), and all sorts of professional training from hotel management to hairdressing, cooking, bar tending and geriatric care. It’s all open to anyone who wants to learn and it’s all 100% free.
The minute you walk in, you notice this very unique and wonderful atmosphere, wonderful people that have smiles on their faces in spite of all the struggles they go through, and it’s all because they now we’re there for them expecting nothing in return and hoping to help and spend time with them. I’ve been a volunteer at many different moments in my life, but I’ve never been involved in anything as substantial and incredible as this. Especially because it’s not all fluff, this place is making a real difference in the lives of these families.
This week it was the center’s 6th anniversary and they had this very special event in front of government officials, and I felt so honored when they asked me to speak at such a wonderful event. I was extremely nervous of course, in spite of all the speaking in public I do with my classes. Not only did I speak, but I was first in line! Boy do I hope I did ok! The front row was filled with government officials and there I was standing before them, microphone in hand talking about what my experience as a volunteer has been, the wonderful lessons I’ve learned along the way, the amazing and supporting staff that make me feel so at home, and of course my students. By then I was so emotional and excited that when it was time to listen to Pape, our volunteer French teacher from Senegal, I just broke down and started crying (as did everyone else that was present). Pape has such an amazing and heartbreaking life story and spends every spare minute he has working at the center, showing us that sometimes those who have the least are willing to give the most. You couldn’t listen to his words without feeling your heart jump to your throat, and at that moment I felt so incredibly happy to have joined this team a few months ago. The words of two other volunteers followed and then a beautiful demonstration by the center’s Karate teacher, and his incredible speech about how he teaches a violent martial art that actually prevents future violence.
Not that we needed to get even more emotional, but the children followed him by showing their drawings and speaking about values like integration, equality, peace, solidarity and collaboration. You could hear the ‘aaawws’ and ‘ooohhs’ a mile away.
The teens from the center’s guitar class gave us a little concert after that by playing “Every Breath you Take” by The Police and “Wonderwall” by Oasis.
The event was closed with some very special words from government officials and staff, we were all interviewed by the press (it was the very first time for me!), and after that we all joined in for a little party, some Peruvian and Spanish food and some sangria. My students came to hear me speak and I stayed there chatting with them until the very end, when they gave all of us girls a beautiful red carnation on the way out. I felt so happy and blessed to be a part of something like this. Since I’ve started my work at the center I’ve met people from Mexico, Honduras, Spain, El Salvador, Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Italy, Senegal, Venezuela and Bolivia, just to name a few. In the end, we’re all the same, and in this very special place, we get to spend some time together and help each other. There’s no bigger lie than to say volunteer work pays nothing, I can tell you that…
Happy 6th Birthday my dear CEPI! May we celebrate many more together.