ŁODZ, Poland — As an American, living and working in Poland can be a daunting experience.
Language barriers, cultural differences, lack of familiar connections and having no family are among the many challenges the 10 Airmen of Aviation Detachment 1, 52nd Operations Group are faced with each day. However, two Av-Det NCOs are making the most of their situation by becoming a part of their new community and getting involved in an English-teaching program called “Speak Up.”
“My co-worker and I were going over ideas on how we could get involved in our community,” said Tech. Sgt. Abraham Morales, Av-Det NCO in charge of logistics planning and Wilmington, Calif., native. “We figured if we volunteer in the states, why can’t we do it here? So we started asking around to find out how we could help out.”
The Speak Up English School seemed like the best way for Morales and Tech. Sgt. Marico Gray, a contracting officer, to help out. Speak Up is a modern English language school that uses a state-of-the-art teaching methods aimed at satisfying each student’s needs and objectives.
“We were thinking it would be nice to get out there in the community because we don’t have anybody here but us guys,” said Gray, a Birmingham, Ala., native. “So we came up with the idea of making ourselves available to the people in our community who want to practice their English-speaking skills.”
According to Morales, they volunteer as “native speakers” at the language school, interacting with students in multiple age groups ranging from 10-year-olds to adults each week.
“We’re kind of like a teacher’s aide,” Morales said. “The instructor gives the lesson and then they break into two groups and then we talk about the day’s lesson.”
Gray said when he and Morales started going to the classes, many of the students were apprehensive about speaking to them in English. Even the teacher couldn’t understand why they wanted to be a part of the program. Gray told her they weren’t doing it for the money, in fact, they refused any type of payment and only wanted to participate on a strictly volunteer basis.
“They [the students] were nervous at first,” Gray said. “But to me, body language is universal, so I wanted to make them feel more comfortable by making myself more inviting. I laughed, joked and smiled with them so they would talk more. The more we continued to talk, the more it [English] became second nature to them.”
Some of the topics Morales and Gray talked with the students about ranged from history and religion to current events. Students also asked them about their experience in the military as well as what it was like growing up in the United States. Sometimes they would get so comfortable with a discussion topic that they would unknowingly speak so fast that students had to ask them to slow down so they could keep up. One student who has been studying English for five years said he appreciated Morales and Gray taking the time to come speak with them on a regular basis.
“I was always scared to talk to others in English,” said Chris Sawegan, a Speak Up English School student. “It’s the worst feeling when you try to learn something, because when you are scared you don’t try. I’m grateful to [them] for coming to speak to us. It’s better to have someone besides the teacher talk because it’s another accent and we must focus more to understand, so it is good.”
Morales said they plan to continue volunteering at the school for the duration of their tour in Poland. His hope is that they’ve made a positive impact in the community and set a standard for those coming in to replace them.
“This is the highlight of my week because I get to go over there and do fun stuff,” Morales said. “If we live in this community, why not be involved? If something is wrong, why not try to fix it? If something is going right, why not try to make it better for somebody else?”
Gray believes that volunteering as a native speaker is not only beneficial to Polish students but it also allows him and Morales to learn a little Polish and also adopt a surrogate family.
“We both come from big families,” Gray said. “We treat our students like family and we want to help them in any way we can. In a weird way, it’s kind of selfish because we wanted to help in order to get that feeling we miss from helping friends and family back home.”
Morales and Gray are among the first Airmen to stand up a new aviation detachment for the sole purpose of coordinating and liaising training events between the United States and Poland each year. The Av-Det stood up in October 2012 as part of a memorandum of understanding between the United States and Poland to strengthen interoperability as NATO allies through joint theater security cooperation events.
The Av-Det recently hosted the first F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircraft rotation from the 115th Fighter Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard, May 13-24, 2013, at Lask Air Base, Poland. This was the second rotation for the Av-Det; the first was a C-130J Super Hercules unit from the 37th Airlift Wing, Ramstein Air Base, Germany.