Teen delivers lessons in love at refugee school

Hinsdale Central sophomore Arielle Shah didn't truly appreciate the gift of a good education until she entered into the young lives of those who had been denied it.

The last three summers, Shah has taught English at a school for Venezuelan refugee children on the Caribbean island nation of Trinidad (and Tobago). Huellitas de Amor, whose name means "Prints of Love," is the sole educational option for the displaced kids.

"They've been deprived of education for so long, so they really want to learn," Shah said.

Trinidad has long been familiar territory for Shah, thanks to regular trips to visit her grandparents there. Several years ago her family began donating clothes and toys to school, which is operated by one of her grandmother's employees. But then the director shared the need for an English teacher.

"I was like, 'Oh, I can help,' " related Shah, who is proficient in Spanish.

She headed there the summer after graduating middle school with no idea what to expect.

"I was totally clueless. I did not know what I was doing," she admitted.

Adapting a workbook for learning Spanish into one for English instruction, Shah soon discovered the students, generally ages 5-12, were hungry for knowledge.

"They're so smart. They would grasp onto it so quickly," she said. "It's amazing how much you can learn when you actually want to learn. (The school) had to cancel their summer break because the kids wanted to go back so badly."

"Maestra Arielle," as she is fondly called, returned the next two summers, leveraging her experience to introduce different teaching methods.

"I made slide shows about what they might want to know. I made games for them and brought prizes and gave them stickers for when they got stuff right," she said.

Students have shared with her some heartbreaking accounts of the turmoil they've experienced. One girl, abandoned by her mom, was forced to flee Venezuela with her college professor father. He could only find work in Trinidad teaching second-graders.

The children's shortage of basic necessities often can pose unexpected challenges.

"They all only have one pair of shoes. One day there was a really bad rain and everyone's shoes got wet and they couldn't come to school because they had no shoes," Shah said. "Most of them have to walk, and they just couldn't do it."

The latest obstacle for Huellitas de Amor is more serious. The school was recently notified that it could no longer operate at its current site. A house was made available to serve as temporary quarters through December, but the school doesn't have the funds to procure a spot beyond that. To help generate funds needed for securing a new home, Shah created a GoFundMe page. As of Wednesday the effort had raised $1,925 toward a target of $10,000.

Shah understands immigration is hot-button issue in the U.S., but she hopes people can be mindful of the individual lives involved, particularly such formative ones.

"I feel really attached to them. They're such sweet kids," she said. "I just really want to help them."

- story by Ken Knutson, photo by Jim Slonoff

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean