By Nidhi Sharma
The Sacred Heart Center, a pillar of the Latino community in Richmond, sits directly across the street from the Sacred Heart Catholic Church. A ramshackle playground is situated beyond the old brick building, and behind the bright red front door you can hear the sounds of children laughing and shouting with joy. It’s a happy sound.
The Sacred Heart Center supports the local Latino population through adult education programs and children’s summer camps designed to inspire a love of learning and create a path for employment and higher education through literacy. The center’s mission statement revolves around the importance of family, and programs cater to teenagers, children, and adults.
Urban literacy specialist and author Kathryn Starke presented for the center’s Cielito Lindo program, a children’s summer camp that strives to make learning fun. Her book, Amy’s Travels, tells the true story of a young girl born in Peru who travels around the world with her family, and was the focus of Starke’s presentation.
Twenty-three children filled the center’s classroom as Starke pinned a map of the world to one of the walls. The group was split evenly between girls and boys, ranging from ages eight to eleven.
Starke began the presentation by introducing herself and asking whether the kids were going on vacation this summer. Many talked about visiting their families in South America, but travel was mostly limited within the U.S.
“Today, we’re going to travel all around the world in just thirty minutes,” Starke said. “Are your seatbelts fastened?”
This caught their attention. The group looked around in anticipation, and the kids giggled excitedly.
Starke spoke with great enthusiasm as she read about Amy’s travels around the world. This was not her first Amy’s Travels event. The book is used in schools, homes, and events in more than twenty-six countries on six continents. Starke has shared her program with schools around her home state of Virginia, in bilingual schools in southern California, and through Skype visits to schools in Florida. The Latin Ballet of Virginia is turning the multicultural children’s book into a musical this month.
The book’s main character was born in Peru and traveled to Europe, Asia, Africa, North America, and South America, Starke read. In the book, Amy mentions Antarctica and Australia as well.
At Starke’s reading, the children discussed topics such as wildlife in Antarctica and the Amazon, schools in Africa, and learned how to say hello in Swahili. At the end of the presentation, Starke asked the students which continent they wanted to visit first.
One boy said he wanted to go to Guatemala because that’s where his father was from. Another child mentioned traveling to South America to visit her grandmother.
Other students suggested going to Europe to watch soccer and absorb the culture, and visiting China to see the Great Wall. Starke was very impressed with the children’s knowledge and enthusiasm for travel.
“This was such a wonderful group of children with whom to share the experience of Amy’s Travels,” she said. “The students of Latin heritage made many personal connections to the main character, Amy, and making connections to the text only increases reading comprehension.”
Starke also emphasized the importance of learning about the seven continents to teach the children about travel and diversity. Most of the children in Sacred Heart Center’s Cielito Lindo program speak Spanish and share a Hispanic heritage.
“All these kids are members of more than one culture,” Youth Programs Coordinator Deirdre Gill said. “99 percent of these kids have parents born outside the U.S., primarily from Mexico and South and Central America. A lot of these kids have never even ventured out of their neighborhoods, so it’s good for them to gain an understanding of the world out there.”
As Starke left the building, she noticed a little library standing like a mailbox in front of the building, and put a copy of Amy’s Travels in the glass case. The book has since been snatched up, and she hopes, read aloud to many.
The Latin Ballet of Virginia interprets Kathryn Starke’s Amy’s Travels in dance at the Cultural Arts Center of Glen Allen May 31 through June 2. For tickets and showtimes, go here