The Bethel Diaries is on ongoing series about volunteering in Beijing. Click here for previous posts.
Jessie Wheeler is from Charleston, Illinois. She’s currently in the eighth month of a year-long internship at Bethel China, where she teaches an English-immersion class made up of kids who are in the process of being adopted by families in English-speaking countries. Wheeler’s six students range in age from 3 to 5, with varying degrees of visual impairment. Recently, she took time out of her busy schedule at the Doudian campus to answer questions about her volunteering experience.
Tell us a bit about your life before Bethel.
Last May, I graduated university with a bachelor’s degree in Speech-Language Pathology. In the fall of my third year, all of my classmates began looking into graduate school. While I knew that I wanted to go to graduate school, I also had a strong desire to take a year to gain experience and explore my field a little deeper.
How did you hear about Bethel?
You could say that the stars aligned in my discovery of Bethel. I had told a good friend about my interest in volunteering for an extended period of time after graduation and she pointed me to Bethel, where she had a friend who was the development manager [Anna Calsina].
As I learned more about Bethel, I realized that it was the perfect fit for the experience I was looking for. My interests in speech pathology had always revolved around children, multicultural influences in speech, and additional disabilities that affect speech.
Not only did Bethel align with my professional goals, it also proved to be an organization that has goals and dreams that I couldn’t help but want to be a part of. Just in my research, it was obvious that Bethel went above and beyond to put the children first and provide quality and personal care in a loving way.
Tell us a bit about your first days in Beijing.
My first few days in Beijing were a whirlwind! In just three weeks, I graduated college, my brother got married, and I moved to a city considerably larger than the corn-filled farm towns of Illinois. I blame the jet lag, but I remember just being in awe of the new culture I had stepped into and excited to start my year.
When I arrived at the Doudian campus, I was surprised that such a secluded place could have a Beijing address. I was impressed with how much the facilities felt like a home and I loved that the kids were free to run and play.
What is a typical day like at Doudian?
[My class and I] are together Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm. During the day, we have a set schedule of storybook reading, play, fine motor activities, and English lessons. In my class, the kids get the experience of being fully immersed in a language like they would in their adoptive families, but in the comfort of their own culture and home. My hope is to make learning English as accessible as possible so that the transition into a new family and country is a bit easier.
I plan a lot of hands-on activities that revolve around their normal daily activities and concrete ideas. We start by learning names of objects and work our way up to expressing feelings and answering and asking more difficult questions. Now, the kids in my class are now so proficient in English that I use them to translate for me with the Chinese staff at Bethel!
How do you design course materials for the kids?
Before Bethel, I had no formal teaching experience. I have worked a lot with children and have experience in the speech therapy clinic at my university, which gave me a better understanding of child development. However, I feel that in the classroom I am just teaching in a way that a mother would with their non-English speaking child at home. The lessons that I plan are based around play and primarily come from searches on Pinterest.
The kids themselves also inform a lot of the lessons that I plan. Surprisingly, one of the first English phrases they learned was “What is this?” Their curiosity created an environment where we could all learn together about the things that they are excited about.
If everyone learns the word “ball,” we can then learn all of the actions that you can accomplish with a ball such as throwing, bouncing, and picking up. The kids have learned English on their own and I have had the honor of being the facilitator.
What’s your favorite aspect of volunteering at Bethel?
My favorite part of volunteering at Bethel is being able to see a change in the children that is a result of my presence in the classroom. Some of my kids are just as proficient in English as they are in Chinese, and I know the impact that this will have during the adoption process.
Last month, a boy from my class was adopted and was able to express his needs to his parents the day that he met them. This boy is blind and moved into a new culture with a family he didn’t know, but could communicate with them.
What about the most challenging?
The most challenging part has been learning to adapt to a classroom full of kids with different backgrounds, language abilities, visual impairments, and developmental levels. Because of this challenging environment, I have been able to learn more about how to address the specific needs of a child while teaching a full class.
What surprised you about working at Bethel?
I was most surprised at how little the language barrier affected my teaching and interaction with the kids and staff. Everyone, including the kids, is so patient with me. I have only “talked” to the other teachers through miming and I consider them good friends! It just goes to show that speaking the same language isn’t everything and that it even provides a good environment for teaching a new language.
What kind of thoughts and feelings do you have as your internship at Bethel draws to a close?
Spending a year at Bethel has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. I will miss this place that I have called home and am thankful for opportunities that it has given me to expand on my professional goals and to grow and develop in personal ways. They have set a high standard for care that I will look towards as I pursue a future as a health professional.
How will your experience at Bethel shape your research interests in grad school?
Because of my experience at Bethel, I have been able to narrow down my research and study interests for graduate school into a more specific area. I would now like to further pursue research in language development of orphans/adopted children and the impact that psychological trauma like abandonment and being raised in an orphanage environment has on a child’s development. I hope to someday work in either an international adoption clinic in the United States or abroad in orphan care speech therapy.
Sijia Chen is a contributing editor at beijingkids and a freelance writer who has covered travel, tech, culture, parenting, and the environment. Her work has appeared in Travel + Leisure, The Independent, the Beijinger, Midnight Poutine, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @sijiawrites or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos: Courtesy of Jessie Wheeler