Story by Belén Dumont
WINDHAM, CONNECTICUT — While running errands a few weeks ago, Willimantic resident Manuela Sanchez-Bodden, 73, heard someone call to her—“Abuelita!” The voice belonged to a child she mentored years ago through the Big Brothers Big Sisters of CT Foster Grandparent program.
Now, almost seven years later, the kindergartener she once spent so much time with was practically taller than her. The child recalled the times they learned and played together in the classroom and the positive impact those memories had on them. Their mother thanked Sanchez-Bodden for helping her child adjust to the U.S., as they had recently migrated to the U.S. at the time while the child’s grandparents stayed in their home country.
“Ha sido una experiencia única, muy valiosa. No solamente por nosotros también para [los] niños…No solo ayudamos a nuestro niños si no que ellos nos ayudan: nos dan cariño, le damos atención. Nosotros aprendemos de ellos y ellos aprenden de nosotros.”
“It’s been a unique experience, very valuable. Not just for us, but also for [the] children,” Sanchez-Bodden shared in a phone call. “We don’t only help our children but they also help us: they give us affection, we give them attention. We learn from them and they learn from us.”
This winter, Sanchez-Bodden has been honored as Mentor Of The Year for her time within the volunteer program, supporting many young, local students in their learning and social development over the years.
She received a total of four nominations for the award from either teachers, principals, or childcare directors and was selected out of the Foster Grandparent program’s 57 volunteers. Sanchez-Bodden was honored with a certificate and award during the program’s annual luncheon at the Pond House Cafe, according to Foster Grandparent Program Manager Jeannette Mendez.
“I can describe Manuela as a very happy person. Everywhere she goes, she has this nice energy,” said Foster Grandparent Program Coordinator Cecilia Lopez. “She’s always helping kids and the teacher that she works with, loves her.”
Sanchez-Bodden shared that she looks to support as many children as possible when she’s volunteering at Natchaug Elementary School in Willimantic. When the children she’s normally assigned with are taking tests, she offers to assist students in other classrooms. As a Spanish speaker, she mostly works with children who speak Spanish. Sanchez-Bodden added that she is proud to help students with reading and pronunciation in English.
Sanchez-Bodden balances her week with working shifts at TJ Maxx and volunteering three to four days at the program. But she hasn’t always been this busy.
Years ago, a neighbor mentioned the Foster Grandparent program to Sanchez-Bodden, encouraging her to apply. Sanchez-Bodden shared that she was struggling with depression at the time, feeling unmotivated to get up most days. She was hesitant at first, but her neighbor insisted that spending time with children would be beneficial to her mental health.
“Quizás es verdad porque me levanto, me baño, me preparo, me voy. Cuando salga tengo la mente disipada.”
“Perhaps it’s true, because I get up, bathe, get ready, and I go. When I leave [the house] I have a clear mind,” shared Sanchez-Bodden.
She now actively encourages other residents in her community to join the program as well and offers to drive volunteers to the program’s monthly in-service meetings.
“She tries to bring that sense of unity,” said Lopez. “If she makes a joke in Spanish, she will make sure that the joke is [translated] to English to, she’s always nice…”
Connecticut Latino News (CTLN) senior reporter and editor, Belén Dumont is a bilingual multimedia journalist with experience covering and serving diverse Hispanic-Latino communities across New England and Washington D.C.