Metro-East Living

Hola, amigo! Children learn about language and make friends at Spanish camp

Esther Herrera uses puppets, such as this one between her and student Dhanush Kondapalli, when she's reading stories to her students.
Esther Herrera uses puppets, such as this one between her and student Dhanush Kondapalli, when she's reading stories to her students. News-Democrat

Dhanush Kondapalli is only 9, but he’s already thinking about his career.

The Edwardsville boy is one of 20 children enrolled in Spanish camp at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

“My (Asian-Indian) family thinks that learning more languages makes you smarter, and so do I,” said Dhanush, soon to be a fifth-grader at Cassens Elementary School in Edwardsville.

“Say I go to a Spanish country, and I need to do some work there,” he said. “I wouldn’t be able to if I didn’t know Spanish. I’d have to get a translator.”

Jasmine Hooks’ parents feel the same way. They began sending her to a Spanish-speaking grade school in Minnesota five years ago.

“My dad thought it would be better for me to know two languages so I could get a better job,” said Jasmine, 10, an African American.

How is she spending summer vacation? Visiting relatives in Edwardsville and attending Spanish camp.

The two-week camp is led by Esther Herrera, 44, of Edwardsville, a U.S. citizen who immigrated from Mexico in 1991. She incorporates reading, math, art, history, music, geography and sports.

Herrera normally teaches Spanish to college students, but she likes to get them younger.

“(Children) are able to learn foreign languages with close to native pronunciation,” she said. “They also have more curiosity about other cultures.”

Herrera leads all camp activities in Spanish, even though some students aren’t fluent.

“I want the children to be immersed in the language, which is a better way to learn,” she said. “I tell them in the beginning, ‘Don’t worry about understanding every single word, just so you have a general understanding.’”

Herrera is big on hand gestures, and she uses puppets while reading stories in Spanish. That helps campers such as Polly Kennett, 6, of Glen Carbon.

“I don’t really know all this Spanish stuff,” she said. “I can only count to 12 and say ‘hello’ and ‘friend.’ Hello is ‘hola,’ and friend is ‘amigo.’”

Polly will be a first-grader at Maryville Christian School. She has taken a few Spanish lessons at home on computer.

“My parents made me (sign up for camp),” she said, grinning. “They want me to know more Spanish. But the best camp I’m going to this summer is horseback-riding. I can’t wait to ride a horse.”

Prodding aside, Polly seems to enjoy arts and crafts at Spanish camp. On a recent morning, the children used clay to make pyramids and other Mayan sculptures.

“I admire the Mayans,” said Herrera’s son, Samuel, 10, who is home-schooled. “They made temples that were sturdy and didn’t fall apart.”

At camp, Samuel created a totem-pole-like sculpture of the corn god.

“It’s like the most important god of the Mayans because their major crop was corn,” he said. “That’s mainly what they ate, except for bugs during famines. They used it to make tortillas and bread.”

All three of Herrera’s children help with camp, as well as her husband, Eric, a soccer coach, and SIUE student Tania Manjarrez, 18, of Schaumburg, whose parents immigrated from Mexico.

The social work major wanted experience working with children. She sees the camp as a cultural exchange.

“It helps break down communication between children of different backgrounds and ages,” she said. “Everyone came to the camp not knowing anyone, and by the second day, they had already formed friendships.”

Contact reporter Teri Maddox at or 618-239-2473.

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