Shawnee Mission East High School is making a lot of friends to the south. The school recently received the Amigos de las Américas Global Citizenship Award for its participation with and commitment to the Amigos program. Twenty-four other schools in the country also got the award.
Amigos provides a program that allows teens to have cultural immersion experiences in Central and South America lasting four to eight weeks.
To get the award, a school must show dedication to service projects, a drive for teaching Spanish and have its students participate in the Amigos programs. The last part is where Shawnee Mission East jumps in front of other schools; it’s had more participants in Amigos programs in the last five years than any other high school in the country.
One of the key factors that made East an award contender was the “consistently strong volunteers coming through the program,” according to Erin Aucar, national outreach manager for Amigos. The organization also took into account clubs and other groups at the school that related to Amigos activities and the involvement of alumni and faculty to support the program.
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“It seems like it really snowballed at this school,” said Jennifer Holder, who has taught Spanish at East for 10 years. “Most of them have grown up in Leawood. It’s good for them to broaden their horizons; it also helps improve their Spanish skills. It broadens their cultural outlook on life.”
Last year, Holder said, 18 students participated in summer programs, which lasted four to eight weeks each.
“They come back a lot of times, and they’ll be like, ‘Life is so unhurried… it’s just a quieter type of life,’” Holder said. “When they’re there, they have to do a lot of leading. They come back with confidence that they can be away from home and still be very successful.”
It can be a culture shock. Students have to adjust to very different living conditions, such as a lack of indoor plumbing or a diet based on beans and rice.
East senior Dane Erickson, 18, returned from eight weeks in rural Paraguay a year ago, but the experience is still fresh to him.
Erickson lived with a local family and spent a lot of time socializing with kids in the community as well as planning and running summer camp activities. Connecting with the people who lived there was paramount for him.
“The main idea isn’t necessarily a mission trip,” he said. “Their priority is to teach you about a different culture.”
To take a trip like this, students must complete two years of Spanish language classes. It’s a practical requirement, because many of the places they’ll go with Amigos may not have any English speakers.
Erickson met with community leaders to find out what they felt was lacking in their area and hit upon the idea of arranging a dance class so that younger people could learn the area’s traditional dances. Erickson and others raised money for a teacher and for costumes by selling sweets.
Before he left, he arranged for local people to take over the leadership of the program to make it sustainable. The classes are still going on now.
“I kind of learned how to be independent,” Erickson said. “It was really interesting to learn how to take care of yourself for two months without your parents.
“I became really close friends with the community members. It’s crazy how little they can survive with … compared to all the luxuries we have the in the U.S.”