It’s a rare treat to welcome one of our students into adulthood and an even rarer one to do so for one of our original students. This past month, we had the opportunity to celebrate with Alvaro, the heart and soul of our program since the very beginning.
Alvaro began the program having just turned nine and has grown up with us over the last nine years, witnessing a lot of change within himself and the program, while attending more programming than anyone else out there. I don’t want to embarrass him too much, but, by all accounts, the program has helped him open up socially over the years, providing a comfort zone that may not have existed previously. The VSP has fostered his interest in English over the years as well and he can now speak at a fluent level, picking up on a lot of our idiosyncrasies and sayings in the process. If I didn’t already know that he’s always lived in Chile, I might assume he had spent his formative years in the United States.
It was a no-brainer for us to celebrate Alvaro’s 18th birthday in lieu of English class, but a lot more difficult to decide how. For many of our students, a K Pop dance party with mountains of sugary snacks would be probably perfect, but not for Alvaro. He’s more of a “play cards with close friends” type of guy and wouldn’t want us to make a huge fuss over him. That being said, 18 is a big one, so we wanted to plan something memorable and wanted to share the experience with as many of our students as possible. Naturally, we decided to surprise him and invite his friends from our other communities.
The party, as all surprise parties are, depended largely on the ruse. We had to ensure that, to Alvaro’s all-seeing eye, the night appeared to be a completely average English class. It was easier said than done, as we also needed to allow time for set-up and couldn’t drastically alter the arrival times of our other students. After some deliberation, we told Alvaro that a parent meeting would delay the class, and were immediately met with a healthy dose of skepticism: Wasn’t there a parents’ meeting two weeks ago? What are you meeting about? How long will English class be? Alvaro is very inquisitive and almost always early for class, so shaking him off the normal routine was a tall order for us.
Jana, who is in charge of programming in Mariposa, bought streamers, balloons, cake, and other decorations and set up the plan with our other students and Alvaro’s mom. George and Ethan drove up to Cerros Toro and Montedonico to pick up some of Alvaro’s close friends in the program, and the rest of us made our way up to Mariposa to set up the room. As is par for the course, the set-up was tense, constantly interrupted by rumors that Alvaro was arriving. Our lookouts definitely dropped the ball at times, as we eventually had an atmosphere of absolute paranoia, losing grasp of his arrival time and time itself (to put it mildly). To make things even worse, and more humorous, Alvaro was running uncharacteristically late and a case of the uncontrollable giggles spread like a plague throughout the room. Eventually, after several false alarms, it was correctly established that he was on his way and we settled into our hiding spots.
After so much anticipation, Jana made the signal, unlocked the door and Alvaro appeared with a puzzled expression on his face. When we all jumped out with a loud “Sorpresa” a sly smile crept across his characteristically taciturn face, quickly followed by his contagious laugh. Although it was hard to gauge how surprised he actually was, he claims that, despite noticing some oddities, the thought of a surprise party never crossed his mind. To him, a night spent with VSP probably would have sufficed, but he was so happy and gracious that we had put so much thought into surprising him.
The party itself was a very relaxed affair. As a gift, we gave him a photo of himself and his family from a surf event, which we all signed, and an old school, highly sought after VSP t-shirt. Aside from making him look incredibly chill, this shirt will be a lasting reminder that he is no longer a mentee, but a mentor, graduating to tío status. For most of the night, Alvaro played Uno (One) with whoever dared challenge him, while the girls choreographed dance moves to the latest K Pop craze. Nobody spent too much time describing the fun responsibilities of adulthood, as can happen, and we all shared a lot of laughs.
Alvaro made the most important wishes of his life (probably for more wishes) and we sang some pretty delightful renditions of both "Feliz Cumpleaños" and "Happy Birthday" before digging into the birthday cakes. Due to a wee bit of miscommunication and a whole lot of enthusiasm, we had four entire cakes to consume before anyone could leave the room. Alright, we did have four cakes, but saved the leftovers to share with the rest of the kids. It was a truly beautiful evening, made even better by a killer sunset, the success of our surprise, and the grin on Alvaro's face the entire time. It'll be a while before our next 18th birthday, so we cherished the special opportunity as much as possible.
As I alluded to before, Alvaro is now considered a tío in our eyes. He’s sort of hovering in a liminal space in the sense that we still include him in our student lists, but are slowly giving him added responsibility with each week. Since he is fluent in English, he has been a huge help with our younger students in English class for several months, but will now take on more responsibility during surf sessions. The past few weeks, with the help of one other tío, Alvaro has started to work directly with other students as an instructor. He has taken up this role with a seriousness befitting him, requiring others to call him Tío Alvaro during classes. Pretty soon, he’ll be packing the vans, cleaning wetsuits, filing receipts, designing our curriculum etc. Welcome to the team, Tío Alvaro! Valpo Surf Project wouldn’t be the same without you!