Our Volunteer of the Month: Benilda Taft-Kiewek

We’re excited to honor our exceptionally talented team of volunteers through a Volunteer of the Month series. Each month we’ll choose one volunteer to highlight in our newsletter and on our website, and this March we’re kicking it off with dedicated in-schools volunteer Benilda Taft-Kiewek:

My name is Benilda Taft-Kiewek and I am a longtime San Francisco resident. Born and raised in Mexico by an eccentric, multinational family, as a young woman I came to live in the United States, where I married and raised a family. My five grown children, I am happy to report, are working in professions they love. And my five suburban grandchildren, who call me “Abuelita,” love to visit me in San Francisco.

Where else could they ride to museums and Chinatown and the San Francisco Bay on public buses or streetcars where so many languages are spoken, while gazing at neighborhoods whose character changes every few blocks? Or go out to eat so many varieties of exotic food? And where else could they find a pirate store to stock up on essentials like mermaid repellent or adventure books written by kids their own age?

Before I retired, I worked as a translator for many years. I still love the challenge of nailing the perfect interpretation, the exact semantic exchange. Words are music to me. I always wanted to volunteer in a worthwhile concern, but my late husband’s poor health demanded my full attention. Were he alive today, Richard would rejoice in knowing that I am now participating in 826 Valencia programs in the Mission, the neighborhood where he grew up and attended school at St. Peter’s and Mission High. (In fact, his family used to live in the flat above the Roosevelt Tamale Parlor and enjoy treats at St. Francis Fountain, both still going strong today.)

I wish I could boast of some interesting hobbies and talents, but other than opera, ballet, theatre, lectures, and old films at my neighborhood Castro Theatre, my only hobby–and first love–is reading. My four tiny, lovely gardens are a joy to read and meditate in, but when I hear comments about my “green thumb,” I cringe. In truth, it must be admitted that I cannot grow anything from seed nor do I know the Latin names of plants; I simply arrange beautiful, mature plants that live together harmoniously. I also love to cook, especially regional Mexican food, but only if visitors are coming.

But the 826 Valencia experience–first introduced to me by a charming young visitor from London–has been an epiphany for me. I signed up tentatively for after-school tutoring and found myself (a seasoned grandmother!) rather intimidated by these smart, focused little kids who knew what they were doing there and how to go about it. Quite quickly, my appalling, antediluvian math skills became apparent, so I smartly remained in the Language Arts table for the duration. Then I was asked to participate in a Spanish poetry program at James Lick School–a marvelous opportunity I hugely enjoyed.

This was followed by six weeks at International High School in the Mission. I attended with some initial trepidation. These were high-school-aged, new immigrant youngsters attending a high school where they barely knew the language, yet expected to write (in English!) about their life experiences in a new culture, a dramatically foreign environment. Being a product of the Sacred Heart High School in Mexico City, I was not attuned to a mixed-gender, high-school environment, but it worked beautifully. These young people were endearing, thoughtful and full of promise, and I learned so much from them, as I had from the twelve-year-olds and the eight-year-olds before them. I actually felt humbled by the experience, and immeasurably enlarged by it. Thank you, 826 Valencia!


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