Alumni Spotlight: Javier Janik


I'm Javier Janik and I volunteered with the Light and Leadership Initiative for 7 months from the beginning of January to the end of July. I was born in Pittsburgh and am very proudly Colombian-American, my mother being born and raised in Colombia. I’ve been here and there since graduating from college in 2009, from living in Colombia, to working as a financial analyst in Pittsburgh, to quitting my job to walk across the United States. Eventually I found myself in the beautiful country of Peru volunteering with LLI. The best way I can describe my teaching experience in Peru in one sentence would be to say that the people of Peru, and especially the kids, taught me a million times more about life and the human spirit than I could ever teach them about English and Math and whatnot.

Why did you decide to volunteer abroad with ​Light and Leadership Initiative?

Javier: In mid 2013 I knew I wanted to do a volunteer abroad experience. I looked into a lot of volunteer organizations, and was specifically looking for something in the range of 6 to 12 months.

I preferred a Spanish speaking country since I speak the language. When I found out about LLI through I had a great feeling about it, since working with kids was something I knew I would love.

When I looked more into the organization and began speaking with its founder, Lara Devries, I fell in love with the idea of working for a small grass roots organization. At any given time LLI has around a dozen volunteers giving their time, and being part of such a small group was truly unique and amazing.

Small organizations sometimes lack the resources to recruit volunteers (especially long-term) as easily as larger more well-known organizations, so to volunteer with LLI really made me feel good about helping not only the community I served in, but also making a significant impact on such a great organization.

Describe your most meaningful souvenir and why you love it?

Javier: I brought home a lot of souvenirs with me, due mostly to the gifts that students and friends gave me when I left. But the coolest thing I hung onto was far from a typical souvenir. I gave private tutoring lessons 2 days a week to the sweetest little 10 year old when I was there. And after every class I would walk him home, just a short little 2-3 minute stroll up the road.

One day when we left the classroom, little Eduardo started kicking this little rock up the street. He’d kick it as far as he could and then I would find it and kick it further up the road. Each time he would line up to kick the rock again, I announced as if he was his favorite player, Messi, taking a free kick for Barcelona.

We both smiled and laughed all the way to his front door, where this little tiny rock made it to. I picked it up as I left, amazed at the amount of happiness we extracted from a little rock, and as a reminder that we don’t need fancy gadgets or huge homes to bring about such happiness. Sometimes all we need is to maintain that beautiful innocence of a child.

Did you run into a language barrier? Did you ever think you knew more/less of the language?

Javier: I think the language barrier issue is an important one to shed some light on. Its something everybody has to deal with on at least some level, and that was no different for me. While I have a decent knowledge of the language, it is still my second language.

I essentially learned it as a small child, stopped using it when I was 5, and had to re-learn when I started making frequent visits to Colombia (my mother is from there) as an adult. There were certainly times in Peru when I wouldn’t completely understand someone, or when I would stumble over a word while speaking.

But the important thing I would like to share is that, don’t be hesitant or think “I would like to volunteer in this country but I don’t speak the language…..” One of the neat things about LLI is that it doesn’t require any Spanish knowledge to volunteer as a teacher.

Our English classes are taught entirely in English, so even if you don’t know Spanish, it doesn’t lessen the impact you can make. It also doesn’t lessen your life outside the classroom much. We had several volunteers who came not knowing any Spanish and they would all probably tell you they had the time of their lives too.

What made this volunteer abroad experience unique and special?

Javier: The LLI program academically is truly unique. My favorite part of being a teacher with LLI is the amount of freedom I had to teach how I saw fit.

We do have a curriculum, but there was never any pressure put on me, and more importantly the students, to finish a book in a certain amount of time, or take a test a certain day. I never felt any pressure to “prepare my kids for a test”.

All I ever tried to do was prepare them as best I could to understand and speak English just a little better. Whether it be doing the recommended lesson plan the book gave me, or shaping it how I saw fit, maybe by challenging the kids a little more when I felt I could.

Or sometimes I would come in one day and say “Alright kids today were going to write a Mother’s Day card to our moms”, or “Were gonna read some Shel Silverstein poems.” There was always that freedom to do those things, and that’s what made the teaching experience truly truly special.