Lexington, Virginia • February 12, 2009
When the San Diego Padres built their state-of-the-art baseball academy in the small town of Najayo in the Dominican Republic, they committed to develop the players both on and off the field. With this in mind, they are now piloting a program, the first of its kind, with faculty and students from Washington and Lee University, to teach English to their baseball students for a week during the 2009 spring break (Feb. 14 to Feb. 21).
The academy draws potential baseball players between the ages of 16 and 20 from Venezuela, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and other Spanish-speaking nations. “Most of the players have very little education, so the Padres are trying to develop more of the education side of the academy, including English classes to make the adjustment easier in case they make it to the major leagues,” says Ellen Mayock, professor of romance languages and one of the faculty members leading the project. “Since very few will make it that far, the Padres want to provide them with an education that will stand them in good stead when they return to their homes. The Padres already have teachers at the academy but they are looking for instructors closer in age to the baseball players who can also tell them about American culture,” she adds.
Nineteen W&L students have signed up for the trip. All are members of the volunteer program English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL). About half are seniors, all are at least bilingual, and five are native Spanish speakers (hailing from Argentina, Bolivia, the Dominican Republic, and Paraguay). The three faculty members accompanying them are Mayock, Jeff Barnett, head of Latin American and Caribbean studies, as well as Jan Hathorn, W&L athletic director.
The Padres are providing room and board, but each W&L student is paying for his or her own airfare, which has meant a flurry of fundraising by the students. They held a Dominican night at a local bakery, and sold T-shirts and baseball caps.
The original suggestion for the project came from Sandy Alderson, CEO of the Padres, to his friend Mike Walsh, special assistant to the vice president of advancement at W&L. Fortunately, Walsh was familiar with ESOL. The program has 80 student volunteers who teach English and Spanish both in classes and one-on-one tutorials within the local community. It was a natural fit.
“We are a real presence in Lexington, and we want to be a real presence in Najayo as well, another small town, so we’ll also be teaching in the town’s four elementary schools, and helping out in any way we can. We may translate documents, do on-the-spot interpretations or any other tasks as needed,” says Mayock. “Basically this is a pilot program and we will be looking for ways to collaborate long-term and maybe do this as a future credit-bearing spring-term course at W&L.”
W&L senior Elizabeth Polanco is part of the group and is from the Dominican Republic. Her family lives about 45 minutes away from Najayo in the capital of Santo Domingo. She says she is looking forward to seeing how her fellow W&L students react to Najayo. “I think it will be interesting to see people go from Lexington to this extremely poor town,” she says. She also thinks that the biggest challenge will be the time constraint of just one week, adding “We’re going to be in a classroom with students at all different levels of English-language proficiency, so that will be hard.”
One of the stark contrasts this group will see is that outside of the state-of-the art baseball academy, the children of Najayo can be seen playing makeshift baseball with a broom and a rock wrapped in a sock. The W&L group has been busy gathering donated baseball mitts and baseballs to take with them. It’s a good start.
English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) is a Washington and Lee University student volunteer organization that works with the local community by providing free English and Spanish classes, translations for public agencies, businesses and religious organizations, and on-the-spot interpretations at doctors’ offices, pharmacies, schools and courthouses.
The ESOL mission is to facilitate communication within the increasingly diverse population in Rockbridge County. Although ESOL has focused on the Latina/o community, the program works with speakers of all languages. It offers formal ESOL classes and one-on-one tutoring arrangements, Spanish classes for adults, free translation of documents (Spanish-English/English-Spanish). ESOL also runs a 24-hour hot line for anyone in the local community who is looking for a live student to help with a quick interpretation in any of 50 different languages. All of the services are free and available to all community members.