Teens teach Lady's Island-St. Helena firefighters a thing or two about Spanish

Typical training for a firefighter means learning to cut open cars or run up flights of stairs with yards of heavy hose line.

But Tuesday,a group of firefighters sat quietly in a classroom awaiting a different kind of instruction.

For the past four months, all 75 members of the Lady's Island-St. Helena Fire District have taken Spanish lessons from some unlikely tutors -- a pair of Beaufort High School rising seniors.

Tresha Pontillo, 17, and Ashley Merritt, 17, conduct free Spanish classes with each shift an hour per week. One teaches at the department's station on Polowana Road on St. Helena Island and the other at the district's headquarters on Sea Island Parkway on Lady's Island.

Both members of Beaufort High's National Honor Society and the school's Spanish Honor Society, Merritt and Pontillo said volunteering to teach basic Spanish and key phrases to the firefighters has allowed them to hone their Spanish and give back to the community.

"It was kind of strange at first," Merritt said. "Here we are teenagers, teaching a group of full-grown adults. But once we were past the first couple of weeks, we really started to have fun with it. Last week, we wrote skits in Spanish that they performed and wore costumes. You realize that there's no real hierarchy between them and us."

The Spanish lessons have come in handy for firefighters during the summer months, when 1,200 to 1,400 workers follow the tomato season to St. Helena Island. There, migrant workers live in one of about 10camps near various farms on the island.

"The value in learning Spanish for us is that we can improve our core service to a larger portion of our customers," said Lee Levesque, spokesman for the fire district.

Levesque said the weekly classes provide firefighters a break from the rigors of their job and the equally strenuous training necessary to fight fires.

"They're a lot of fun," he said, who is also learning Spanish."It's a welcomed break from our normal training. Usually, we're outside pulling hose or cutting up a car, but these girls go to great lengths to make it fun for us."

Bringing together Spanish tutors from Beaufort High and Lady's Island-St. Helena firefighters was the brainchild of Terry Thomas, who volunteers to manage the school's student-athlete tutorial program. The program pairs Beaufort High student-athletes with honor students who tutor them in a variety of academic subjects.

Thomas said he knew Pontillo and Merritt were the right choice to pilot the program, which he hopes to continue indefinitely.

"Their selection to be Spanish coaches was based upon my awareness of their ... knowledge of Spanish, their dynamic personalities, perspective and all-around capabilities," Thomas said.

For at least one of the tutors, what started as a volunteer activity could lead to a career in the classroom.

"Every time I come to one of these classes, it makes me want to teach," Pontillo said.