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January 29, 2016

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Educator shares message of community service

John Cucinello is in the habit of getting up early most mornings. Before starting his day-job as director of community and service at Western International School of Shanghai (WISS), the native New Yorker makes sure to spend time preparing for his weekend classes with disadvantaged students.

Every Saturday, Cucinello — or Mr C as he’s affectionately called by students and colleagues at WISS — runs a volunteer English-teaching program for underprivileged youngsters in the Xujing area of Qingpu District. The classes are offered for free at the WISS campus, as are snacks brought by Cucinello and his parent volunteers.

Aside from Mr C himself, the program’s other teachers include volunteers from the WISS student body, many of whom offer their English knowledge to learners scarcely younger than themselves.

When Shanghai Daily paid a visit to a classroom used by Cucinello, the veteran educator was setting up tables, preparing food and sorting handouts. Several hand-drawn pictures were also posted on a white board at the front of the class. These were drawn by Denise Malheiro, a volunteer and a mother of three girls.

“Here everyone knows him,” said Malheiro.

“There are two things I would like to say about Mr Cucinello: First, he provides education to local and WISS students. I think there is nothing more precious than that,” the mother went on to say. “When you educate someone, you empower them in so many ways — you empower their family and down the road, generations! Then, John gives his time to others. He worries about others and is a good listener. He inspirers others because of that!”

Around 120 students arrive to take part in the program around 10am. They are divided into nine classrooms, where they receive one hour of conversational English training, followed by 30 minutes of playing outside.

After his preparations are complete in the classroom, Mr C often waits outside to welcome his pupils and get them excited about class.

In the early days of the program, only a handful of students would show up each Saturday. By the end of the second year though, this figure increased to about 30.

As for the program’s volunteer educators, they are all enrolled in WISS’s community service program. They range from first-graders all the way up to high-school.

According to Cucinello, this teaching experience will help WISS students engage with their community. As for their young charges, they stand to absorb more than just English knowledge.

“What are the students seeing?” asks Cucinello rhetorically. “They see another kid get up on Saturday morning to teach them. And they do it every week, week after week. What impression does this have on the young person? Service has to be modeled. It’s learned behavior.”

“I’m a student teacher for this Saturday school program and I’m also a student from WISS,” said 18-year-old May Phua. “Every Saturday morning I come to school and teach all these local students English. I’m very happy to see all their smiles and how they actually learn English from us. So I’m very grateful to be given this opportunity.”

Phua also had positive things to say about Cucinello.

“He actually started this program to help the local students. This is not an easy job because he needs to take a lot of responsibility — he needs to come here early in the morning, set up all the tables and then inform all the students to come here. I think it’s really a tough job.”

“Mr C is very kind and often brings us snacks. I feel that he is much better than the teachers at my school,” a student, 11-year-old Zhang Jiaming, told Shanghai Daily. “He also organized a wonderful Christmas party for us!”

Zhang Hongzhen, the mother of a student enrolled in the program, told Shanghai Daily that will never forget the time Cucinello knelt down on the ground the take photos with his students. “He made you feel like he is the father of all these children,” she said.

For his dedication to this program and his efforts to promote community service, Cucinello was among the winners of the Shanghai International Excellence Awards.


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