Learning Spanish in a Soup Kitchen in Spain

When I arrived in Spain five years ago with my rusty high school Spanish, nothing quite prepared me for the challenges in communication I’d face on a daily basis. 

I poured myself into learning the language and decided that since the kids were in school all day, I’d try volunteering at a local soup kitchen. Nothing like mingling with the locals to improve my vocabulary! Here I was forced to make small talk with the other volunteers as we chopped vegetables and sorted shelves. 

I went every week and became a part of the Monday posse of Spanish ladies ‘of a certain age’, none of whom spoke a word of English. They kindly put up with my poor grammar and patiently slowed down their chatter so I could stand a chance of following their gossip and stories. 

On Mondays that the kids had no school, I’d take them along with me. The ladies immediately put them to work, unpacking boxes, sorting fruit and even chopping chicken. (It was the first time my 9 year old had ever touched a knife...)

My older son, Max, was 12 and he got to chatting to the ladies (he picked up Spanish much faster than me) and found out that lentils were in short supply. They explained that lentils are far more filling and nutritious than the plain white rice supplied by the national food bank.

Max, a young aspiring DJ, decided that at the next school disco he was playing, he’d get everyone to bring a bag of lentils to gain entry.

It was a huge success and we must have loaded around 100 bags of dried lentils into the back of my SUV which we drove over to the soup kitchen the following Monday. 

This became a tradition at The American School of Madrid and even now, three years later, entry into school activity nights is with a donation to the food bank.

Max became a spokesperson for his school, giving speeches to the Board of Directors, starting initiatives and going on to win the Middle School Leadership Award the following year. 

Last Spring the school nominated him for a national award amongst all of the other American Schools across the Europe and he was a winner, along with a check for $500!

The experience of volunteering has had a profound effect on him. He’s joined the Model United Nations and sees a future for himself in some kind of a position that does good for the world.

Not every kid will embrace this kind of activity with such passion (my younger son didn’t!), but it’s great to give them opportunities to help out and see what that feels like. Who knows where it might take them?

I wish I could say that my Spanish has improved since then, but two years ago I started my own kind of ‘do good’ project - and it’s all in English! I now run a global website that helps busy mothers find a happier balance in life, www.myprojectme.com 

I may have started volunteering as a way to improve myself, but I never dreamed of the positive influence it would have on my son.

- Kelly Pietrangeli