Mentoring in Madrid

Working with developmentally disabled Spanish youth taught students on Tufts’ inaugural service-learning program about commitment, perseverance—and themselves
Watch a video about Tufts students taking part in the 1 + 4 Bridge Year Service-Learning Program in Madrid, Spain. Video: Steffan Hacker
August 24, 2016


A young woman and a girl moved along a street in a quiet neighborhood of Madrid. They held hands and talked fast in Spanish. The girl, perhaps eight years old, looked up at her companion as she told her story of the day’s big event, a school birthday party with lots of kids and colorful balloons.

Periodically, the girl got so excited that she almost stepped off the sidewalk into the street, as she pivoted and waved her hands around to dramatize the moment she was recounting.

The young woman was Madeline Weir, an American from Buffalo, New York, who was one of four students who spent last year in Spain as part of the inaugural Tufts 1 + 4 Bridge-Year Service Learning Program.

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Already accepted to the undergraduate Class of 2020 at Tufts, and an accomplished athlete who was recruited to the women’s crew team, Weir spent nine months volunteering her time and energy in Spain and, with any luck, discovering something valuable about herself in the process of helping others.

Counterclockwise from top, Madeline Weir, A20, walks Josefina through the rain having traversed the city by train and foot to a series of appointments across town and then back to Montoya House; Josefina asks if Weir will carry her for part of the rainy commute; Josefina jokes as Weir tries to get her to focus on completing homework back at Montoya House. Photos: Alonso NicholsAfter ambling along the street for five minutes, chiming back and forth in Spanish, Madeline and her young charge—let’s call her Josefina—arrived at Montoya House, a temporary home for a small group of developmentally disabled children.

Montoya is one of five houses in Madrid, all run under the auspices of the Alicia Koplowitz Foundation, where the 1 + 4 students worked. The schedules for Madeline and the other bridge year fellows—Daniela Sánchez from Albuquerque, New Mexico; Gongga Baerde from Somerville, Massachusetts; and Justin Mejía from Fairfield, Connecticut—varied depending on their individual assignments, but each of them logged between 20 and 30 hours a week at their respective volunteer sites. The four lived together in an apartment for their nine-month bridge year experience.

They generally worked at the homes from mid-afternoon through late evening. They would escort the children from school to one of the homes, assist with tutoring, take their charges out to local parks for exercise, help prepare dinner, and then get the kids ready for bed. Sometimes the students worked solo; other times they overlapped.

As soon as Madeline and Josefina arrived at Montoya House, where six girls, ages 7 to 15, spent their weeks, returning to their family setting on the weekends, the young girl ducked into her room and hung her coat on a hook in the corner closet.

Out in the hallway, Madeline spoke with Juan Carlos, Montoya’s 30-something supervisor, about Josefina’s problematic home life. The girl’s father was absent, perhaps dead, Juan Carlos said. For unspecified reasons, her mother wasn’t capable of taking care of Josefina, so someone else was watching her on weekends. She was one of some 5,000 children in Madrid in need of help. Of these, the Koplowitz Foundation provides assistance to approximately 350 per year.

As she spoke, Madeline crouched down in the hallway so that Josefina could approach from behind and run her fingers through her tawny-colored hair, tenderly patting and arranging it.

The hope with his six girls, Juan Carlos said, was that they would either be adopted as children or develop skills that would enable them to get a job once they reached the age of 18—perhaps become hairdressers, he suggested, with a glance toward Josefina.

“All the girls need is someone to be there and be their love and their role model,” Madeline said later. She was worried about what would happen when her time in the bridge year program was up and she had to return to the States and leave Josefina behind.

Madeline and the three other 1 + 4 fellows in Madrid were there only temporarily, and whatever positive influence they be able to exert during their stay would be difficult to monitor or to trace. They were left to do what they could and hope for the best after that.

For Daniela Sánchez, Madeline’s 1+4 roommate, the stay in Madrid became an occasion for far-ranging reflections on her cultural heritage. Daniela was born and raised in Albuquerque, where her family descended from Spanish conquistadors who settled the area in the 1500s.

“That whole history has given me a more complicated vision when looking at new places and thinking about origins,” she said with a pensive look in her dark brown eyes. “This place is a part of me.”

For all her seriousness, Daniela had a knack for making friends. Ducking into a favorite neighborhood café, she received nods from the waiters; one friend she made this way—a Cuban baker named Héctor—even gave her a birthday gift of a T-shirt. Madeline had become her best friend in Madrid.

In good weather, the two of them liked to visit Retiro Park, a sprawling refuge studded with fountains and laid out along majestic, tree-lined avenues. There in the park, outfitted with their usual cache of supplies—blankets, water bottles, notebooks, colored pencils, snacks and sunscreen—Madeline and Daniela passed the time surrounded by Spaniards jogging, roller-blading, lounging on benches and promenading in the open air.

On the left, Gongga Baerde, A20, poses for a photograph on Aug. 26, 2015, on the Res Quad at Tufts during her pre-1+4 orientation. On the right, she poses seven months later on Calle los Mesejos where she shares an apartment with the other 1+4 fellows. Photos: Alonso NicholsOn the left, Gongga Baerde, A20, poses for a photograph on Aug. 26, 2015 on the Res Quad at Tufts during her pre-1+4 orientation. On the right, she poses seven months later on Calle los Mesejos where she shares an apartment with the other 1+4 fellows. Photo: Alonso Nichols

Gongga Baerde was utterly transformed by her time in Madrid. Born in Tibet and educated at a high-pressure boarding school in Chengdu, China, she moved with her parents to the States for high school, first in New York City and then in Somerville, Massachusetts.

For years, she said, she was a young woman whose entire identity stemmed from academic achievement. “I was very sad,” she said. On a personal blog she kept, Gongga described herself as sitting alone at a table in her high school cafeteria, grimly studying for her next exam while students at the next table laughed and joked. Without her 1+4 experience, she said, her college years at Tufts would have been identical to the loneliness of high school, only set in a new and fancier cafeteria.

Being on her own in Spain, and operating for the first time by her own lights, she became brave and venturesome, “couch-surfing” around Europe by herself (hopping from Berlin to Amsterdam to the Canary Islands, among other locales) and developing close relationships with the girls in her care.

“They constantly come running toward me and kiss me, telling me how much they love me,” Gongga wrote on her blog. “They tell me secrets that they don’t want to share with others.” They taught her trust and forgiveness.

The world opened up for Gongga as she came to realize “that there is so much more to life than just school.” Despite her mother’s sharp disapproval (“This is so disgusting—you will never have a boyfriend!”), Gongga took up weightlifting in Madrid. She spent about two hours every morning working out at a gym around the corner, where she said she was often the only female pumping iron.

As the only male in the Madrid 1+4 cohort, Justin Mejía initially felt like something of an outsider. But that was before he settled into his daily routine of helping to care for four boys ranging from 12 to 15 years old at Geranios House.

In contrast with his apartment mates, Justin had done a great deal of this kind of thing before. As a high school student in Fairfield, Connecticut, he participated in mentoring and tutoring programs that the Rotary Club sponsored across the state.

In Madrid, each of his boys was struggling with a developmental issue of one kind or another, ranging from learning disabilities to ADHD. One boy was a Type 1 diabetic who needed daily exercise at a nearby park to help control his disease. Justin made a point of helping the boys individually with their homework and English skills, but their behavioral issues demanded more immediate attention.

When Justin first arrived, none of them would look him in the eye when he spoke to them, so he taught them how to maintain respectful eye contact and not walk away in the middle of a conversation. They didn’t know how to set a table for dinner, so he showed them. He also taught them the art of folding clothes and putting them away neatly.

Some of the challenges were more acute. After a round of bullying at school, the boy with ADHD threw himself under his bed and wouldn’t come out for hours. Justin crawled under the bed and persuaded him to emerge.

In a way, the incident captured the entire 1 + 4 experience for Justin, and perhaps for the other fellows, too. He had signed up for the program in order to help, but it wasn’t always clear just how much help he could really be. That was discouraging at times, but for him it was simply the beginning of the challenge, not the end. He was there and he was going to do what he could.

“I didn’t come to Spain to be a glorified babysitter,” he said. “I wanted to have a real impact on these boys.”

Bruce Morgan can be reached at