HESS volunteer bridges language barriers to give student the full JA® experience

As a sixth grader, it can be easy to feel confused or lost when first exposed to financial concepts such as taxes, interest, budgeting, 401ks, and insurance. After all, these are concepts that many adults struggle to fully wrap the minds around. But imagine being introduced to these topics in a language you are just learning to speak. For one Ridgeview Middle School student, this is exactly the predicament in which he found himself.

On Monday, February 8, volunteers from HESS Construction & Engineering Services (HESS) descended upon Ridgeview Middle School in Gaithersburg, Maryland for a JA® in a Day volunteer experience. Throughout the day, HESS volunteer role models taught six career readiness and financial literacy lessons to a group of sixth grade students, as part of the JA Economics for Success® program.

The volunteers paired off and dispersed to their assigned classrooms. HESS employee, George Kreutz was paired with his colleague Mike Hess, whom Kreutz says is part of the reason he decided to volunteer.

“I came on board with Mike Hess about two years ago and I would always walk by his desk and see him separating the game pieces in his kits for volunteering and I was intrigued,” said Kreutz. “Finally, I just made the decision to get involved.” 

Together, Hess and Kreutz began teaching their first lesson of the day, but not long after they began teaching, Kreutz took notice of a student who seemed to be lost. He noted that the student was just doodling on his paper and was very unengaged. As it turns out, he was an ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) student who knew virtually no English.  

As Hess recalled, the two of them looked to the teacher in the classroom for help. She began to ask another student in the classroom, “Can you help him understand?” But before she could finish her question, Kreutz knelt down and began translating everything Hess was teaching.

Kreutz, who was an ESOL student himself, knows how frustrating it can be to feel as though you have been left to fend for yourself while the rest of the class goes on.

“Spanish is actually my first language,” said Kreutz. “In a sense I could relate,” he said. “Because, in my experience, my parents actually had to stop speaking Spanish at home because I was having trouble with English. I know firsthand how great it is when someone actually takes the time to help you out.”

So he made the decision to step up and utilize his bilingual skills to ensure the young boy would not miss out on the Junior Achievement® experience because of a language barrier.

“Once I started speaking to him in Spanish, I watched his eyes light up like he was saying ‘Oh, I understand.’ Then from there on out, as I translated the lesson, he was completely engaged. Until that point, he just had no way of getting involved. That was the best feeling I had all day,” said Kreutz.  

As he sat beside him at different points in the day and translated the curriculum, there was a lesson entitled “World at Work” where the students explored future career paths and had to identify what career paths they believe they might be good at or enjoy. During this time, Kreutz explained his own career in construction to the boy as an example.

While most children in the class placed themselves in the categories related to “Arts, Audio/Video Technology, Science, Engineering, Health Science, and Public Safety, this one young man that Kreutz was helping was the only child in the class to choose the “Architecture and Construction” category. This gesture is an indication of the profound impact Kreutz made on the boy’s perspective in just one school day.

Kreutz, who loves working with children, says he will definitely be back again to volunteer. “I’m biased, because I love working with kids, so naturally I had a great time. The games were really fun and overall, [volunteering] just feels really good.”

And it helps that HESS, the company he works for, is a long-time partner of Junior Achievement of Greater Washington and actively encourages employee volunteerism.

As Kreutz notes, “Volunteering with JA® is a big thing here at HESS. Andy [Andrew Hess, the President and CEO of the company] encourages everyone to get out and volunteer. In fact, JA® volunteering takes precedence. If you’re busy, it doesn’t matter. It’s like ‘Oh, you have a meeting today? That can wait. …Go volunteer.’”

Kreutz’s teaching partner Mike Hess noted that the full day was “a great success and extremely rewarding to all involved” and Kreutz mirrored those sentiments.

“I was happy that my Spanish was able to come in handy and I was very surprised what these kids already know about the real world. Honestly, I know we are there to teach them, but you would be surprised what you learn from the kids. Kids are just getting smarter and smarter computer wise and skills wise. You might think they won’t understand, but they do. The future is getting stronger,” he said.

The group of HESS employees that volunteered their time to teach students the JA Economics for Success® program at Ridgeview Middle School on February 8, 2016.

The group of HESS employees that volunteered their time to teach students the JA Economics for Success® program at Ridgeview Middle School on February 8, 2016.