GILLETTE — Heidi DeStefano, now an educational author after more than a decade as a kindergarten and first grade reading recovery specialist with the Campbell County School District, took a vacation with her husband to Guatemala in 2019.
While enjoying a meal, she expressed a desire to visit a local elementary school there.
Koki, their waiter, heard what she said and generously offered to show them a school where he had taught for some time. It would require a 30-minute ride on a chicken bus, an old American school bus used by Central and South American countries to transport people and sometimes livestock. They also would have to travel through gang-controlled territory to get there; it was rumored to be unsafe for chicken buses.
But they went anyway.
Koki showed them around. He’d been a teacher there when a volcano erupted and the school took in an influx of displaced students. It was hard work, he told DeStefano.
The school was in Alotenango, Guatemala, which opened in 2015 and now serves about 280 students. It’s run by Humanity First USA, an international philanthropic organization formed in 1994 that’s dedicated to disaster relief and development opportunities to vulnerable communities around the world. Guatemala is one of 12 countries where Humanity First operates, and the school is one of nine it has around the world.
“It was all concrete, and they didn’t have any books that I could see,” DeStefano said. “So I asked the principal there, ‘Would you be interested if I could provide some books?’ She was very excited about that.”
There was only one problem.
“My books were in English, but she needed them in Spanish,” DeStefano said.
There’s a variation of an old saying that goes, “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” For some dedicated educators like DeStefano, there’s a version of this line of thinking that says everything looks like a potential learning opportunity.
Instead of putting her growing Spanish knowledge to work or depending on friends who could translate the relatively simple books, DeStefano approached Keri Shannon, Stocktrail Elementary School’s principal, with an idea.
“Your students, your third and fourth grade students, would be able to translate those with me, and we could get this done and have them give the books to this school,” DeStefano remembered telling Shannon.
DeStefano said she practiced up on her Spanish to be able to visit the Stocktrail students in their Spanish-speaking classroom and pitch the idea in Spanish.
“That was a bit brave of me,” she said proudly.
“She shared a video presentation about what this school is, what this school’s like over there, to get the kids excited and share, ‘This is why we want to do this and we needed your abilities in Spanish because you’re going to be presenting these books to kids the same age, more or less, that will be able to learn to read because of the work you’re doing using your language,’” Shannon said.
The kids jumped into the project with gusto.
“Children are just wonderful that way,” DeStefano said. “They always want to help.”
And so they did.
“We had our older-grade classes do the translation in fourth grade, but then COVID hit,” Shannon said. “So they did the editing this year in fifth grade. … Our students really took ownership of it.”
Nathan Peters, now an 11-year-old fifth grader, remembered doing the translating work last year before COVID-19 delayed the process.
“I thought, ‘If these are getting sent off to kids who can speak Spanish, then I probably want to do my best to translate these from English to Spanish as well as I can,’” Nathan said.
He was a bundle of energy, and it was easy to imagine him tackling the assignment with a can-do attitude.
“When I do it, it takes a while for me because I have to think, a lot,” he said.
He clarified that it wasn’t taking him a long time because he didn’t know many of the words; in fact, he knew most of them, he said.
“I’m really fast at reading through those and being able to translate, because I read a lot,” Nathan said. “The reason it takes me a while is because I’m getting, like, book after book after book after book after book after book in the time it might take some kids to take just one.”
It was just another day for a dedicated Boy Scout like Nathan.
“The Scout slogan is, ‘Do a good turn daily,’” he said. “And that’s what I do. I try to do my best to help people.”
Adriana Dominguez, another 11-year-old fifth grader, was also eager to help.
“I thought it was sad because they didn’t have as much opportunity as we did,” Adriana said.
She felt confident in her translating skills.
“It was easy for me because I already had Spanish as my native language,” she said.
The books told a lot of stories about farms and wildlife.
“They were interesting books,” Adriana said. “They had a lot of pictures.”
DeStefano’s books, an educational series known as “Meet the Applemans,” is a guided reading series for kindergartners and first graders. The nonfiction stories focus on the daily lives of a local ranch family, the Applemans, and the books are illustrated with photographs from Christine Appleman.
Each book comes with a lesson plan that helps students strengthen letter identification, word decoding skills, comprehension and writing skills. The books have extra-wide spacing between the words so the students can clearly focus on one word at a time. The simple sentences pair well with Appleman’s photography to connect what they’re reading to what they’re seeing.
On the back of the books, there’s guidance for teachers. The instructions were a bit advanced for the students, so DeStefano relied on Ruth Cloud, a Spanish teacher now at Thunder Basin High School, to translate those passages.
“I did as much as I could with Google Translate,” DeStefano said of her efforts to translate the instructions before asking for Cloud’s help. “She said, ‘I think you’ll be fine as long as you don’t use Google Translate.’”
DeStefano laughed at the memory, and said she was thankful to have Cloud’s help on the project.
There are 38 books in the series, and a class set of the books has six of each. That’s what the Stocktrail students will be sending to the Humanity First school in Guatemala. All of DeStefano’s and her students’ hard work was realized through close cooperation with the Campbell County School District’s print shop.
Mandy Love, the print shop manager, oversees a small staff of four full-time employees. They turn out all of the printed materials for the district’s roughly 9,000 students. One of the benefits Love and her team could do was offer printing that really makes Appleman’s photograph stand out.
“We helped them choose some materials that would hold up long-term for them,” Love said.
“We just did a heavier text-weight paper instead of a regular bond that would hold up a little bit better,” she said. “We laminated the covers so they would be durable for a long time.”
Shannon was effusive in her praise of the print shop’s willingness to help.
“I think that’s just something that speaks to the district really being on board with all of the things we wind up doing,” Shannon said.
Like DeStefano, Shannon saw the project as having twice the value. It was an undeniable good deed to help out the students in Guatemala. But it also had so much to offer her own students here in Gillete, she said.
“A lot of these kids didn’t choose to join a dual-language program,” Shannon said. “Their parents chose for them, obviously. Sometimes the kids are like, ‘Yeah, we’re learning Spanish, whatever, but what’s the use? We’re doing it because our parents told us to.’”
But do her students really understand at such a young age why a second language is beneficial? she asked herself. The simple extension of their classroom work provided an opportunity for young students to recognize the value in the language skills they’re honing.
“First of all, they saw a purpose, ‘Oh, I have a language, and now I’m actually going to use a second language to contribute to the world,’” Shannon said.