Empathy Based Learning Profile

Juanita Gonzalez: Recent UCLA graduate volunteering for one year at the Dream Children’s Home (DCH) in Cameroon


Juanita Gonzalez has just graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and a minor in Ethnic Studies. She is a native Angelino who grew up in the economically strained Pico Union District, west of Downtown LA. She was motivated to volunteer at the Dream Children’s Home (DCH) in Bamenda, Cameroon after watching a documentary about the persecution of Christians and genital mutilation of girls in the North West region of the country.


Juanita is the oldest of four siblings; both her parents emigrated from Juarez, Mexico during the mid 80s fleeing the escalation of drug related violence along the Mexican border.  Her parents are illegal immigrants and have not attained permanent residence in the United States. They have worked mainly under-the-table cash jobs for the last 30 years. Her father Ernesto is a skilled carpenter and has had steady work as a subcontractor; her mother Conchita raised all four children and has worked intermittently selling fruits at a mobile fruit cart in McArthur Park.  However, all their children were born in Los Angeles and are American citizens.


Juanita excelled from a young age in all academic subjects, and by age 14 she was tracked into the most prestigious public school in Los Angeles Unified School District, Los Angeles Center for Enriched Studies (LACES). While at LACES Juanita was a gifted student and lead the debate team to a second place finish in the regional finals. With high grades and strong SAT scores, Juanita received a full ride to UCLA.


While at UCLA she continued to achieve high grades and decided to pursue a degree in Political Science.  She spent one quarter of her sophomore year in Santiago Papasquiaro, Mexico teaching math to children of farmers. Her dream is to attend Harvard Law School after her year in Cameroon, and ultimately wants to become a Civil Rights Lawyer protecting the rights of illegal immigrants and undocumented workers throughout Southern California. Juanita is motivated through a strong moral conscience and believes that her calling is to protect the weak and impoverished.


Juanita was chosen to by the Dream Children’s Home for her solid critical thinking ability, math background, and teaching background while volunteering in Mexico. She will meet the organization’s need to educate the students in basic mathematics. She will work mainly with the English-speaking orphans from the age 7-12 and will focus on arithmetic. DCH plans on expanding her responsibilities to teaching math to older orphans depending on her performance in the first quarter of her stay in Cameroon.


DCH has been struggling with finding good teachers, and many of the children suffer from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder).  Some orphans are showing signs of other stress related behavioral problems, including disruptive and often violent outbursts by students who have experienced extreme suffering as child soldiers. The leadership team is hoping Juanita’s compassion and patience will help these students by refocusing their attention on school, and more positive aspects of life at DCH.


When Juanita arrived in Cameroon she was in culture shock. She not only looked different than everyone, she also felt very isolated emotionally. Having spent almost her entire life in California she began to feel nervous and scared in Cameroon. When she arrived at the orphanage she was relieved to find they had an internet connection, although it was both weak and intermittent. She made a Skype call home to her parents and began to feel a little more normal. It will take over 6 weeks for Juanita to being feeling comfortable in her new surroundings.


Her immediate training needs are all very basic: safe parts of the town she can visit, rules and regulations of the DCH, foods that are agreeable, and speaking basic French (the language most of the leadership team speaks). Her overall performance suffers in the beginning as the classroom space is over crowded and lacks basic supplies like pencils and paper. Although she loves the children, they often mock her appearance and her American accent. After a few weeks her performance improves, and she has engaged a number of students. Juanita presents word problems that are culturally relevant, using native fruits and locations as examples, and many of the students display tremendous growth.

There is still a basic gap in her knowledge about water hygiene and safety. Everyone at the orphanage is drinking from a quickly depleting well. Most of the staff and orphans have immunities to many of the water born bacteria. Juanita knows to filter the water, but carelessly drank an iced tea and gets a very bad stomach bug that lays her out with severe diarrhea for a week.


Many of the American Volunteers at DCH have been getting sick from contaminated drinking water from the well. They have been told to filter their water using a clay filter that each volunteer has in their room, but they have not been given any formal training on the subject of specifically what in the water might be making them sick. For example, the volunteers do not know that the clay filter does not filter out viruses because they are so small that they can pass through the membrane.

Juanita has taken a number of online/hybrid classes while in college, and could have benefited from a half an hour online training about water safety and water-based diseases. She is mainly an auditory and visual learner, which explains her success in the traditional educational models. I believe a downloadable or stream-able online training module that includes visual graphics, video clips and short blocks of text would meet her training needs. The training module needs to be concise since the volunteers are busy and only need to get the most important points about water safety to meet the training need, which is basically to not get sick from contaminated water.

The advantage of using video clips would be to easily illustrate the symptoms and what the phages or vectors might look like, which will help visual and auditory learners. The downside is the bandwidth issues at DCH, and some learners prefer just to read.

The water safety training will also include text and a one-page-printable-tips to keep in their room. This will be a CliffNotes version of the water training that will be a reminder to wash their hands, boil or filter their water, and to avoid certain foods and drinks that might be contaminated. The draw back of text might be that it’s boring and might be overlooked by learners who prefer video or audio formats.

I believe that by using a mix of video, audio, text and short quizzes, we can greatly improve the health and knowledge of water born illness safety for the English speaking volunteers at the Dream Children’s Home in Cameroon.