BELIZE CITY, Belize – Hands wave through the air in an organized fashion, and children follow the movements as they enjoy the children's story "A Day at the Farm."
Marine Corps Cpl. Parnell Sararana put his Universal Sign Language skills to use here April 4 as he translated while Air Force Staff Sgt. Jon Espinoza read aloud at the Stella Maris School Belize Academy for the Deaf.
Sararana is deployed from the 1st Civil Affairs Group at Camp Pendleton, Calif., in support of New Horizons Belize 2014, an exercise in which U.S. service members train with Belizean professionals in engineering and medical care. The civil affairs role in the exercise is to engage with the local population, as well as government and nongovernment organizations, to facilitate the best possible environment to build educational and health facilities and provide medical, dental and veterinarian care throughout the country.
The Marine Corps reservist with an affinity for caring for others has spent more than four years in the service, but he said this is the first time he's been able to apply his signing skills while wearing the uniform. He was glad to do so, he added.
"I started learning sign language about six years ago from my brother-in-law, who is deaf," Sararana said. "I would say I'm intermediate in my signing and use it fairly often, but I'm still growing with it and learning new words. My whole family speaks sign language, so I don't ever want to feel left out of a conversation."
Though he signs often with his family, it was "nerve racking at first to sign for the students," he said.
"But as I saw the smiles on the children's faces,” he added. “I relaxed and was happy to show them that I cared to share that time with them."
Stella Maris is one of three schools in Belize City to receive new facilities from the Belizean military’s light engineer company and the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps civil engineers. The interaction offered both students and teachers a different perspective of service members outside the construction at the school.
Though there are teachers at the Stella Maris school fluent in sign language, sharing reading time with U.S. service members was a rare opportunity for the students and teachers, as well for as the service members.
"I'm fortunate to know sign language, and I wanted to see what I could do with it," Sararana said. "Now I know that I can help people -- help a child understand a book or just communicate outside of the normal day-to-day -- to let people know that I care."