Last Updated: October 15th, 2012By

The Army Cultural understanding Language Program is designed to create more culturally aware and capable cadets who have committed to serve in the Army after graduation. The CULP trips serve as an opportunity for cadets to travel and learn simultaneously, but personally I was able to gain much more than just cultural understanding. My group traveled to Costa Rica participating in volunteer work ranging from working at special needs schools, to teaching English to Costa Rican youth, and assisting the elderly. My assignment teaching PE at the Special Needs school and teaching deaf kindergartners would end up being one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.

Cadet Sam Pulliam helped train special needs students for the Special Olympics

At the Special Needs School I taught physical education class to students suffering from a wide array of disabilities, including autism, down’s syndrome, and cerebral palsy. Working with these students was a very difficult task, but proved to be a life changing experience. I learned so much from the students and Braulio, the schools PE teacher.

Braulio is a 21 year old college student who was thrust into the teaching position at the Special Needs School, even though he has no experience in the teaching. Braulio’s positive attitude and self less service were absolutely inspiring and he brought out the best in not only the students but everyone around him including me. Braulio wakes up every day at 330 to take a 3 hour bus from his home to the school, all while attending night classes. He never once complained and approached every day with the most inspiringly positive attitude. Braulio is one of the greatest men I have ever known and it was a privilege to work with him every day. The positivity of the students and teachers in Costa Rica was absolutely inspiring. These kids have some of the biggest obstacles in their lives, debilitating illnesses that do not allow these kids to experience an independent lifestyle. Despite all the difficulties in the lives of these students, they show up every day excited and positive.

My experience in Costa Rica taught me enjoy every moment, always stay positive, and to always put forth your best effort. These may all seem to be obvious lessons, but in reality most of us do not live by these few simple rules. Working with these kids was challenging, which presented two approaches to the volunteer work. First, you could have a negative demeanor and go through the motions of work waiting for the day to end, or always stay positive, enjoy your time there, and capitalize on every moment to impact the lives of the kids. With the help of the kids I always chose the second. As long  as I was positive the kids would also reciprocate and were so thankful for the work of their teachers and the volunteers.

One of the greatest experiences on the trip was after working all morning with a little girl named Angie, a  4-year old deaf girl, as she was leaving she ran up to me raised her hands and screamed, signaling to be picked up. When I picked her up she wrapped her little arms around my neck and kissed my cheek. This is just one example of countless times that kids would show their appreciation. It really is amazing the impact you can have on people, as long as you consciously choose a positive attitude and to always give your best effort. It taught me to never take for granted the impact that you can have on another person.

The impact these kids had on life is hard to express in words. I am a completely different person than when I left the United States in late May. Working with the kids, Braulio showed me the importance of the work that we were doing, so many of the things that are taken for granted, such as coordination, are things that we helped work on with the students. Some of the tasks may have seemed menial, like holding hula hoops for the kids to walk through, but in reality this is teaching the kids skills that many of them never had. I learned to realize that you have the opportunity to positively impact someone else’s life every day, it is just a matter of deciding to choose a positive attitude and focus on giving your best effort.

As a future Army officer I have already chosen a path of service, but my experience at the special needs school and deaf kindergarten further cemented that I always want to help others regardless of where I am. Service to others is the greatest calling in our lives and all the teachers at these schools were inspirational to work alongside. The students I worked with may never remember who am I or that I even volunteered at the school, but the moments I was there and able to see the smiles on their faces and help train the students for the special Olympics and with coordination were the most rewarding experience of my entire life.

This experience is something I will always take with me and gave me perspective to always stay positive and embrace every opportunity or challenge as a chance to grow and become a better person. The purpose of the trip was to assist in the professional development of future Army officers, I can say that for myself, while I was able to develop professionally, the way this trip impacted my life and helped with personal development will always be my greatest result of this trip.