By Tristan Domville

Special to the Denisonian

While most of her peers were getting ready for college, Raquel Cuellar ‘18 had different plans, namely, volunteering at Escuela Cristiana de Sordos, or Christian School for the Deaf in Nicaragua.

Cuellar, a native of Nicaragua’s capital, Managua, first developed a passion for helping the deaf at the age of fifteen. While attending church, she became acquainted with a deaf girl named Jennifer. “I wanted to be able to speak to her because no one else could,” Cuellar said, “I thought it would be kind of cool.” Little did she know that what started out as a unique friendship in church would quickly develop into a strong desire to pursue special education, specifically for the deaf.

She dedicated years to learning the Nicaraguan Sign Language while cultivating her relationship with Jennifer. When she graduated high school, Cuellar contacted the director of the school and was quickly put to work. Cuellar spent the first six months working as a substitute teacher. “A lot of the teachers were missing a lot and I would just take over their classes,” she said, “I would take over high school classes and elementary classes and so I got to know all the kids really well.”

After the six months, the director approached her and offered her a position as an English teacher for grades seven through twelve, which she graciously accepted. As a full time teacher, Cuellar was expected to create her own lesson plans and assign homework. Something that normally takes years of training to accomplish, she mastered in only three weeks.

Fortunately, Cuellar’s mother is an English teacher at another school so she had access to her mother’s tools and teaching strategies. “She gave me all of her books,” Cuellar said.

Every week she would create a list of vocabulary surrounding a different topic, such as family members and common phrases. “You’re watching TV and you’re not hearing the English, you’re listening to music but you can’t hear it, and so they’re not really exposed to any [English]. And so what you need to teach them is [really] basic,” Cuellar said. When asked about the state of special education in Nicaragua, Cuellar grew solemn. She said, “There are trained people but there aren’t enough trained people and you need people that are really interested because it is a lot of work.”

To be able to work effectively with children with disabilities “takes a lot of education and in Nicaragua that kind of education isn’t really available. And so you have lots of people that  maybe really want to help but don’t know how.” Cuellar hopes to receive that education so that she can go back to Nicaragua once she has acquired the necessary credentials and make a positive change in the lives of the deaf children she has grown so fond of. She plans on pursuing a double major in Education and Psychology with a minor in Studio Art.