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Sometimes a smile is the best language you can have.

Stephanie Risius, Spanish teacher at Pleasant Valley High School, knows this first-hand. And so do her students who have traveled with her to Peru, where they have discovered a country while they learned self discovery.

Risius, who graduated from nearby North Scott High School in Eldridge, is in her 18th year at Pleasant Valley. “I had really influential Spanish teachers at North Scott,” she said.

She went on to study Spanish at the University of Northern Iowa and studied in Spain.

It was a meeting with a Pleasant Valley graduate that gave her the incentive for her students to take their Spanish out of the classroom — far, far from the classroom.

Daniel Klopp, a 1994 Pleasant Valley graduate, founded Voices4Peru (http://v4peru.org/) to help a marginalized community north of Lima.

“One of his outreach programs is a soccer club, Club Deportivo Dan, that allows kids to play for free (players must sign a contract promising to maintain good behavior and attendance)," Risius explained.

“Some of the older players are also sponsored by people in the United States to attend college,” she said. “College costs about $150 per month and an average family in Peru makes $300 per month, so college is out-of-reach for many teens.”

One day Klopp, who visits PV regularly to talk with students and who is listed on the PV Wall of Honor, told Risius “You should bring some students to Peru.”

She asked whether they could bring some donations for the nonprofit and for families in need, and he said the area could use medical supplies, ibuprofen and bandages and cough medicine. Klopp’s Peru initiative includes a preschool, so he also needs shoes and clothing.

In March 2016, the first group of Pleasant Valley students and Risius took 37 suitcases of donations on their trip abroad.

“All these things we can easily run to Walgreens and get are very expensive there,” she said.

When Klopp saw what they had brought “He was completely shocked,” she recalled. “They had to have a taxi to take all the stuff.”

The trips, she said, are pretty much open to anybody who wants to go.

“We've taken 10 groups down over the past four years, taking with us 58 PV students and 10 adults,” she said. “I do have kids who have gone back multiple times.”

Recently, a girls soccer team began in Peru and PV donated its old girls soccer uniforms.

Donations aside, travel helps the students appreciate what they have, Risius said. They also learn that other countries are not just what they read about, and it helps dispense with stereotypes.

“You don’t want to be tourists,” she tells her students. “You want to be travelers.”

“Kids come home inspired.”

One area they visit is so impoverished parents often sell their children to organized crime groups that put them to work in the mines. Sometimes, children are kidnapped, Risius said.

“The community we serve doesn’t have running water,” she said. “It’s the little things. Life is hard. But you can break that cycle of poverty with education.

“This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been able to offer my students,” she said. “They see what else is out there in the world. They realize how giving of your time can make a difference. “

She always travels with the students, and does “tourist-y” trips as well as volunteer trips.

“We have taken 10 groups to Peru to volunteer in the summer and/or spring break,” Risius said. “We've taken old uniforms or sweatshirts from the PV teams to donate to the Voices4Peru soccer club.”

The students also become involved in after-school activities for the Peruvian children.

“They’re realized that life is not about stuff. I think it’s neat for teenagers to figure that out. It has made my kids reflect on their own education,” she added.

“The kids see there is more to a country than what tourists see.”

Risius, who recently earned the 2019 Iowa Masonic Teacher of the Year Award, got the call about the honor when she was in Peru.

Obviously, her students have a really influential Spanish teacher, too.

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Film critic/reporter since 1985 at Quad-City Times. Society of Professional Journalists, Broadcast Film Critics Association and Alliance of Women Film Journalists member. Member of St. Mark Lutheran Church.

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