Los Niños de Zihuatanejo Service Project: Hoy por ti, mañana por mi

The ACIE Newsletter, May 2007, Vol. 10, No. 3

By David Reid, Assistant Principal, Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School, Robbinsdale, MN

(Author’s note: Hoy por ti, mañana por mi is an expression that speaks to the wisdom of giving and receiving. It is similar in meaning to: You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.)

Developing students’ language skills and appreciation of other cultures are key goals of immersion education. Research and experience teach us that language is acquired most effectively when it is used in meaningful social situations. One of the many challenges facing immersion educators is to provide opportunities for students to use the target language as a real means of communication in an authentic sociocultural situation. One way to further language skills and appreciation of cultures is to put students in direct contact with native speakers abroad.

The Niños de Zihuatanejo project began in 2002 when parents and educators from Robbinsdale (MN) Spanish Immersion School (RSI) looked into developing an ongoing service project to enable students to interact with children from a Spanish-speaking country. Word of mouth referrals put us into contact with individuals serving students in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, located in the state of Guerrero, the second poorest state in Mexico. An influx of rural poor job seekers has strained the public school system in Zihuatanejo where many schools need basic supplies and amenities. Government funding is often inadequate, leaving parents and neighborhoods to struggle with the costs of operating local schools. Poor quality education has been identified as one of the factors that perpetuates the cycle of poverty in Guerrero.

Project Beginnings

The Niños de Zihuatanejo project started very modestly. During the first year, 5th grade Student Council members packed eight boxes of clothing, school supplies and beanie babies donated by RSI families. In February of 2002, three adults from the RSI school community, along with two members of Airline Ambassadors International (a charitable non-profit organization of airline employees), delivered the boxes of supplies. After enduring delays due to high security, missed flights, a broken box, lost luggage, and difficulties connecting with the Zihuatanejo contacts, the participants delivered the supplies to Escuela Primaria Nueva Creacíón (a school of very simple classrooms constructed of makeshift wood and wire fencing, sitting on a precarious steep slope) and to Colonia La Joya (a rural community in the hills above the city). After seeing the looks of joy on the faces of children receiving small stuffed animals and of teachers getting simple notebooks and writing utensils, the RSI participants were certain that the Niños project would become an integral part of the RSI community.

During spring break of 2003, thirteen students and parents delivered twenty 40-pound boxes to Nueva Creacíón, Colonia La Joya and another school, Casa para Niños del Pacífico. In addition, cash donations of about $500 were raised. Money was spent to purchase a refrigerator, food for a luncheon and get-together with students, and for transportation to deliver materials to each site. Student participants were surrounded by authentic language and cultural opportunities, and they delighted their parents and their Zihuatanejo friends with their Spanish capabilities.

The project grows

Each year since, the number of participants has increased. Over the past six years, the RSI community has collected and delivered thousands of pounds of school supplies, clothing, toys, and dental supplies. Cash donations have purchased equipment, food, transportation, and other goods and services for children in Zihuatanejo as well as materials to build classrooms and bathrooms.
During each service project trip, giving and receiving takes place daily. Participants are mindful of the dual goals of providing service and of taking in authentic culture and language. RSI parents described the experiences of two different days in Zihuatanejo:

  • On Thursday, the group visited Casa para Niños del Pacífico. The children and staff there had prepared for us a beautiful traditional song and dance presentation. In return, part of our group sang some of the songs our kids sing regularly at RSI. One family from the group was donating a violin to this school and two of the children from our group performed and then demonstrated how to play the violin. Our children handed out beanie babies and miscellaneous school supplies, and had a lot of opportunity to interact with the students at the school. The children from our group also participated in a treasure hunt with the students from the school. Our group provided a picnic lunch for all, which was enjoyed at a nearby park where everyone participated in a soccer game - adults, children, staff and all!
  • Four hundred dollars in cash donations was used to purchase building supplies, such as wood, roofing, nails, etc. in order for the parents of this community to build another classroom for this school. The wood was delivered to the school while our group was there and everyone helped carry the pieces up the hill to the school. Another community nearby was given all the clothing donations, and some of the beanie babies and tooth-care products later that same day. It was a very exciting day there to gift all these supplies to these communities in need. These areas were by far the most impoverished we visited.

Other parent and student participants have observed the following:

  • Watching our children converse with the locals was a special treat. Because Zihuatanejo is not really on the American tourist radar, there are not a lot of accommodations to English — especially off of the beach. This was just fine as long as there was a kid in tow to help decipher everything from restaurant menus to ATM displays. As I explained to my kids, “If you don’t speak Spanish, we don’t eat.”
  • A lasting impression was of how proud the children were of their schools. Regardless of its condition, the kids wanted to show us their school and they gave the impression that it was an important part of their lives. The lens through which they saw their school wasn’t one of what they didn’t have, but of what they had. While we might wonder how school can possibly happen at a place like Escuela Nueva Creación, you saw in the excitement of the children that somehow it did.
  • It might seem like a lot of work, but it isn’t. It was great to use Spanish down there because my parents didn’t know any. I had to order most of the food so my parents didn’t get the wrong order. The next kids that get to go should be really excited. They will have a blast!!!!!

During the most recent trip, forty-four individuals traveled to Mexico during the week of March 31, 2007. They delivered 47 suitcases filled with more than 1800 pounds of donated supplies including more than 500 handbags and backpacks sewn and filled by volunteers. Mexicans and North Americans worked together to paint one school; another school, soon to be built with funds raised by non-profit organizations and the city of Zihuatanejo, will replace the fragile, unsafe classrooms of the previous school. During a groundbreaking ceremony for the new school, two students, one Mexican and the other Minnesotan, laid the first stone for the school foundation.

Communication via webcam

All RSI students have the opportunity to participate each year by donating supplies. But in order to bring the experience truly to all students at RSI, our goal is to establish a year-round long distance correspondence between students in the two cities. With family contributions and a small local grant, webcams were purchased for RSI and Casa para Niños del Pacífico, and internet service was purchased for Niños del Pacífico. Despite technical limitations, 4th and 5th graders, have corresponded, to a limited extent, via instant messenger and the webcams. It is hoped that, once the new school is completed, a similar arrangement can be set up there as well.
Robbinsdale Spanish Immersion School’s Los Niños de Zihuatanejo Service Project has resulted in a few jelly fish stings, hot and sunburned bodies, upset stomachs, confiscated supplies and last-minute changes in plans. The project has also delivered a rich language immersion experience, with many opportunities for giving and receiving, for students and families in Minnesota and Mexico. We hope it remains a part of the culture of RSI for years to come.

Poetry from un sabor de nuestro mundo

an excerpt from

- Ceci H. & Rachel A.

¿Por qué me miras así?
Why do you look at me like that?

Como que no encajo.
Like I don’t fit in.

¿Por qué me miras así?
Why do you look at me like that?

Como que mi pelo me define.
Like my hair defines me.

¿Por qué me miras así?
Why do you look at me like that?

Como que el color de mis ojos me define.
Like my eye color defines me.

Sí, mi cultura es diferente.
Yes, my culture is different.

Pero en realidad, por dentro soy como tú.
But really, inside I’m just like you.

Muchas personas me miran y en ese segundo creen que saben como soy.
So many people look at me and in that second they think they know who I am.

No toman el tiempo de conocerme, porque están preocupados de como me veo.
They don’t take the time to get to know me because they are too caught up in how I look.


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