Saturday, November 15th, 2008
By Shelley Grieshop
The golden rule
Local Head Start students learn about acceptance through Russian volunteer
Preschooler Daniel Reedy circles the towering man in his classroom and offers a loving hug before joining the other students in a circle on the floor.
"This happens a lot," laughs Pavel Cherepanov, the object of the little boy's affection.
Cherepanov, 24, a Russian native, began volunteering at Mercer County Head Start in Celina in August.
He came to the U.S. about a year and a half ago as part of an international program at Bowling Green State University. He completed his doctorate in chemistry and taught college students for a year. But when it came time to get a job outside the campus, he hit a roadblock.
"They don't allow me to work yet," Cherepanov says.
Like other foreigners, he must endure an in-depth background check by the U.S. immigration service and Homeland Security before being awarded a work visa. Cherepanov, who hails from St. Petersburg, Russia - a city of nearly 5 million people - has no idea how long it will take for the paperwork to be finalized. While waiting, he decided to volunteer at the school.
Michelle Self, the director of early childhood services at Head Start, says Cherepanov's presence among the students is a teaching tool of sorts.
"We hope our children learn that all people are unique in the way they look, act, dress or speak," she says. "Respect, acceptance and tolerance are fundamental principles we hope children will model in the classroom and we hope it is a lifelong contribution we make in their lives."
While attending Bowling Green, Cherepanov met Theresa Tesno of Montezuma, who was studying the Russian language. The couple wed in August. Tesno, who is a substitute social studies teacher, also periodically volunteers at Head Start.
Head Start teacher Sue Stachler says volunteers are a valuable asset to the school and Cherepanov is no exception.
"We love having him here," she says, while setting lunch dishes around a horseshoe-shaped table. "The young boys have really gotten attached to him. I guess the girls have, too. It's neat for them to see a guy teacher for a change."
Cherepanov and Stachler recall his debut in the classroom, laughing at the expressions on the children's faces when they first heard his heavy accent.
"One girl asked me if I was speaking Spanish or something," he says with a smile. The children now call him Pasha - a much easier name to pronounce.
Although Cherepanov likes his role with the children, he admits his ultimate goal is to teach students who sit in chairs more than a foot off the ground. He'd like to teach chemistry or science to high schoolers and eventually plans to move to a larger metropolitan area, he adds.
For now he spends his time helping children navigate the computer, paint pictures on construction paper (instead of each other) and any other duties that give teachers more time to teach.
"It's nice to have an extra pair of hands," Stachler says.
Cherepanov seems to welcome the high-pitched voices begging him to "sit by me, sit by me" or "read me books." But by the end of each day, he's ready for the seemingly-endless wail of good-byes.
"They have much more energy than me," he says with a grin. "I go home exhausted."
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