Volunteering in Florence


I remember when I first landed in Florence I told myself that I was never going to pass up an opportunity that would let me embrace Italian culture. This state of mind lead to several situations such as trying to speak my weak Italian every where I went, tasting different types of Italian food, and even trying to fit a cooking class or two into my schedule.

Although all these lead to me understanding Italian culture a little more than I previously did, shockingly the biggest insight into my new life came through me actually embracing being an American! This ironic twist of events was because this semester I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to help teach Italian children English.

This opportunity came to me through my school here in Florence and although I was reluctant at first, I tried to hold true to what I told myself in the beginning and not pass up the opportunity. I have learned a lot about Florence through studying its profound history in my classes and on my own; however, after being immersed inside an Italian educational environment, I can honestly say nothing can ingrain a culture into someone better than seeing where the natives learn. Where one receives their education says a lot about how they grow as a person and into a community. I can personally say that after spending time with Italian children in school, my thoughts on Italian culture only deepened.

There were three other girls who volunteered along side me. None of us knew what to expect when we first arrived but were excited to finally be getting some hands-on experience. After walking up about three or four flights of stairs, we reached the lunchroom where we would be talking to the students during their lunch break. The room was very large with small, square tables that were perfectly lined in columns and rows. To the left, rows of huge windows let in a bright light and view to the courtyard below where children could be seen playing games. All the way in the back there was view of a kitchen where one could see part of the preparation of the food the children were about to be served. No child brought packed lunches but instead the lunch ladies served everyone three small courses throughout the period.

While talking to the coordinator, she told us to be patient with the children, use hand gestures when they do not understand and above anything else DO NOT USE ANY ITALIAN. Even if we knew the language, we could not speak to them in it since the point of the experience was to have the children learn English through conversations. Suddenly there was a burst of noise and all at once, young Italian children ran, skipped, and jumped into the lunchroom guided by their teachers. They were all pretty young and the ages ranged between seven and eleven. The older students of the group were wearing navy blue outfits that wildly resembled a chef’s double-breasted jacket. At first, I honestly thought the children were taking cooking lessons until I found out that was just their regular uniform.

Before I knew it, we had to jump right in and start interacting with the children. By ourselves, we approached each table and introduced ourselves. Most tables of children looked at me with blank expressions like they could not comprehend a word I was saying or why I was there. Other students waved me away as soon as I approached their table and immediately rambled something in Italian that I can only assume was an expression of how they did not want me there. Many of them knew my game, and most did not want to be a part of it. Eventually, I found a nice small group of children who were excited to talk to me. One of the girls who was very good at speaking English explained to the rest why I was there and that we were going to talk. I asked them questions about school and their favorite movies, which it turns out they absolutely loved horror films. I learned that they all had a huge passion for their home city Florence, except for one girl who swore she would find her home back in the United States one day. They all spoke to me in English, and those who could not find the words sought help from the others at the table. I have never seen kids work so well together.

Every week I returned to that same table for some time and every week they enjoyed my company. Like I mentioned earlier, most children complained and did not want to be bothered, but as far as I’m concerned, I accomplished something by helping just a few children. One moment I will never forget is the look on one young girl’s face as I walked past her while leaving. She smiled and came up to me to give me a big hug and I could tell my presence meant something to her. Hopefully in the future I will be given the opportunity to move on to bigger experiences than this one; however, no matter how small my volunteer experience here was, the impact of it will stay with me my entire life.

Melissa Calato is a student at Wagner College and an official API Blogger. Melissa is studying abroad with API in Florence, Italy.

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