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From Volunteer Tutor to Big Sister: Student Finds Spanish Family Through Mentoring

04/01/2019

For two and a half years, SLU student Janee Mahan has been volunteering to teach English to Irene, a seven-year-old girl who shows her American big sister off to friends and serenades her while wearing princess dresses.

Janee Mahan, Irene and Carlota

 Janee Mahan, a senior at SLU-Madrid, had always wanted to work with children. She knew she could volunteer while studying at SLU’s Spanish campus and followed her passion into a years-long relationship with a Spanish family. Submitted photo

Mahan, a senior at SLU-Madrid majoring in political science, had always wanted to work with children. She knew she could volunteer while studying at SLU’s Spanish campus and followed her passion by volunteering with t-oigo, a nonprofit organization that helps children with hearing impairments like Irene learn English as a second language.

Mahan and other SLU-Madrid student volunteers take part in t-oigo’s Allies in English program. The program connects hearing-impaired children with native English teachers who serve as mentors, encouraging intercultural learning and creating an approachable environment for learning a new language.

But what started out as volunteerism morphed into finding family in Spain, and not one, but two little sisters, Irene and Carlota.

“I underestimated the fact that it would be a program where I could give back, but in the end, I got a family out of it who are always there when I need them,” Mahan said.

Mahan travels back and forth from Madrid to Pozuelo de Alarcón to teach Irene, a commute that takes nearly an hour each way. When she began working with Irene, Mahan said the two didn’t quite know how to bond. Eventually, after coloring together, playing dress up and working through ice-breakers, the pair grew close.

“Working with Irene turned into a transformation big sister/little sister experience,” Mahan recalled. Once Irene began pulling the SLU student into games with her friends, the bond was set. The pair’s relationship eventually grew to include Irene’s older sister Carlota.

I underestimated the fact that it would be a program where I could give back, but in the end, I got a family out of it who are always there when I need them.”

Senior Janee Mahan

The three have spent their semesters together baking, cooking and playing, along with learning and teaching English to each other.

“Being part of Irene’s family has been so rewarding,” Mahan, a New York City native, said. “I’ve grown very close with all of them and they treat me with unconditional love. They truly keep me grounded. Having them with me basically my whole time studying in Spain makes it feel like I have a little support system beyond the one back home. Although I am supposed to be helping them, they actually help me in ways I was not expecting.”

Her time with t-oigo and her Spanish family has complimented her SLU coursework, shaping her into a person who “is driven to do more good and selfless acts out in the world,” Mahan said.

But what started out as volunteerism morphed into finding family in Spain, and not one, but two little sisters, Irene and Carlota.

“I underestimated the fact that it would be a program where I can give back, but in the end, I got a family out of it who are always there when I need them,” Mahan said.

Mahan travels back and forth from Madrid to Pozuelo de Alarcón to teach Irene, a commute that takes nearly an hour each way. When she began working with Irene, Mahan said the two didn’t quite know how to bond. Eventually, after coloring together, playing dress up and working through ice-breakers, the pair grew close.

“Working with Irene turned into a transformation big sister/little sister experience,” Mahan recalled. Once Irene began pulling the SLU student into games with her friends, the bond was set. The pair’s relationship eventually grew to include Irene’s older sister Carlota.

The three have spent their semesters together baking, cooking and playing, along with learning and teaching English to each other.

“Being part of Irene’s family has been so rewarding,” Mahan, a New York City native, said. “I’ve grown very close with all of them and they treat me with unconditional love. They truly keep me grounded. Having them with me basically my whole time studying in Spain makes it feel like I have a little support system beyond the one back home. Although I am supposed to be helping them, they actually help me in ways I was not expecting.”

Her time with t-oigo and her Spanish family has complimented her SLU coursework, shaping her into a person who “is driven to do more good and selfless acts out in the world,” Mahan said.

“Connecting with another family means a lot to me,” she continued. “It means we both have moments of vulnerability, and at the same time, moments of openness toward one another. So, for me, connecting with a family, no matter what country they are from means the world to me because we both overcame something.”

In the lead up to graduation, SLU is sharing some of the stories of its graduating seniors as they look back on their college experience and ahead toward their next steps.


One of Spain’s oldest and most renowned U.S. universities, SLU-Madrid is a center for international education in the country. Founded in 1967, it was the first U.S. university to be recognized by Madrid’s ministry of higher education.

Story by Katie Gortz, SLU-Madrid Marketing, and Amelia Flood, University Marketing and Communications