There are anchor moments in your life that change who you are and how you see the world. The summer between my junior and senior year of college, I had one of those anchor moments. I got the opportunity to apply for an international YMCA Camp Counselor program after a few summers of being a YMCA Camp Counselor. I didn’t know where I would be going since there are YMCA’s all over the world.
I ended up being accepted at a camp in Spain called English in Action. It was going to be great because I didn’t know how to speak Spanish but I didn’t need to know it. My job would be to help the children practice speaking English.
Two weeks before I was to leave for Spain, I found out that the camp no longer wanted American Counselors. The girls who went to the first session of camp were wild. Some of them even got pregnant so the camp director did not want any more American girls.
I was devastated! My family already paid for my plane ticket. It was my only cost to attend camp since my food and shelter would be paid by my service as a counselor, but the ticket cost $1,000. The coordinators told me they would try to see if they could find another placement for me.
A couple of days later they called back and said they found another camp for me to attend. It was in the mountains north of Madrid. Campamentos Penas Blancas.
I was overjoyed that I was going to get to go to camp in Spain!
Once I got to the camp, I met another girl from America, Lisa. Lisa and I became fast friends. After we set up our tent, we sat outside it and began talking to each other to get to know each other better.
Then the director of the camp, Contrado, marched up to us with his hands on his hips, he said, “You are in MY country. You must speak MY language!” Then he spun around and walked away.
We were mortified! Both Lisa and I did not know how to speak Spanish. I only learned 3 sentences before coming:
How was I going to be able to communicate, if I couldn't speak English? And I loved to talk!
I was pretty cute back in 1987. I was five foot two, 110 pounds, and super spunky. The other male counselors wanted to be my friend and they told me, "We will talk to you in English, but you have to talk to us in Spanish."
I exclaimed, "But I don’t know how to speak in Spanish!"
They said, “Just say,” Como se dice….and the word in English and we will tell you what it is in Spanish. “
That worked! By the end of camp, I was even dreaming in Spanish!
After camp ended, I was supposed to have a homestay with a Spanish family. Unfortunately the husband was ill so that got canceled. The YMCA put me up in a hotel for a few days before my flight back to America.
The camp director Contrado, must've looked at my application and noticed that it was my 21st birthday. He called me up at the hotel and told me he would pick me up and make me a birthday dinner.
When Contrado got me, we rode the subway to the market to pick up fresh bread, meat and vegetables. Then we rode the subway to his apartment. When we got off the subway, he purchased a pair of earrings from a sidewalk vendor. Contrado gave them to me and said, " In your country you would have gotten gifts today. So this is for you."
When we got to his apartment, we laughed and told stories while he cooked me dinner. When we sat down to eat, I looked at Contrado and told him that he scared me on my first day of camp.
Contrado looked into my eyes and said, “Gina, you and Lisa scared me. I didn’t know how to speak English very well and here I was given two American girl counselors. I had no idea what we were going to do with you and I couldn’t understand a word the two of you were saying to each other."
I will never forget that moment, looking into Contrado’s eyes and heart. I learned what it was like to be an outsider in a foreign land. Though people from different cultures may look different, and have different customs, basically we are all the same.
We are all God's children with the same human emotions. It is fear that leads to hate and prejudices, but that fear melts away, when we take the time to get to know each other. That is the pathway for world peace.