PORTSMOUTH — Ask Ava Park what she likes most about her new friend from Guatemala, Karissa Estrada, and she doesn’t hesitate.
“She always likes to try things that are new,” said Ava, a fifth-grader at St. Philomena School. “She didn’t know how to play checkers or ‘Sorry!’ or ‘Life’ or anything that I had, but I taught her and she didn’t say, ‘I don’t want to do this because I don’t know how.’ She’s adventurous. That’s what I liked most about her.”
Karissa was one of two students who visited the private Catholic school for eight weeks through the exchange program Experiencias Interculturales. It was the first time St. Phil’s had ever taken part in such a program another country, according to Principal Donna Bettencourt-Glavin.
“They go through a six-month training program and then they apply to make sure psychologically they can handle it, because they’re only 13 and 14 years old,” said Ms. Bettencourt-Glavin. “We got them uniforms and they attended classes. The grades don’t count for them. Both of them also had to do presentations in class about their country.”
Karissa, who was visiting grade 7, stayed with Ava and her mom, Monica Begin of North Dartmouth. The other student, Diego Lara, visited grade 8 and stayed with fellow eighth-grader Ted Bjerregaard and his parents, June and Chris Bjerregaard of Bristol. Their stay here ended last week.
“It was a wonderful visit here. Everything was amazing,” said Karissa, who loved the St. Philomena campus and American food.
“It’s delicious,” said Karissa, whose favorite food back home are taquitos, small rolled-up tortillas filled with chicken and sauce that her grandmother makes.
Ava said it was nice to have someone around to play with, since she has no siblings and her mom is often at work. She thinks Karissa’s friendly demeanor and willingness to try anything is part of her culture.
“When we Skyped her before she came, she had her family over and all her cousins weren’t afraid to talk to us. They just went right up and said, ‘Hi! I’m so and so!’ They weren’t shy at all,” said Ava, who plans to continue e-mailing or Skyping Karissa every month.
Diego attributed his impeccable English to all the time he’s spent in America on vacation as well as exchange programs both here and to England. He enjoys studying American history and hasn’t ruled out attending an American college or university after high school.
“It’s a different way of living. The weather is much different — much colder here,” said Diego, who is also amazed by the size of the cities he’s visited here, which include New York, Boston and Providence. “They’re so huge.”
Diego had a busy stay with the Bjerregaards, a big sailing family.
“We had a regatta down in Newport and he was on one of the chase boats to watch that,” said Ted. “We went to a LaSalle play, we went to Trinity Rep for ‘A Christmas Carol.’”
Visit taught patience, tolerance
Ted said the eight-week visit from his new friend has taught him how to improve the way he interacts with the people who live with him.
“It helps you learn how to not bug people — not to get on their nerves and sort of know when to separate so you don’t get tired of each other,” he said.
He also learned about Guatemalan food, as Diego introduced his fellow students to one of his favorite dishes from his homeland: tostadas, a friend tortilla dish with meat or vegetables.
The presentation didn’t exactly go as planned, however, according to Diego.
“The beans weren’t the same and the tostadas were more like Taco Bell tostados,” he said.
Of course, the chef is always his own worst critic.
“I thought it was good,” said Ted.