Thursday, 09 October 2014 00:00

Interpreter finds his calling in life Featured

Written by Veronica Thompson
Fernando DeSousa-Pereira speaks with a parent about her child’s schoolwork. Fernando DeSousa-Pereira speaks with a parent about her child’s schoolwork. Photo by Veronica Thompson

Tucked away in the back of Mountain View Elementary School's library is a man who is passionate about his job and the work he does for Johnson City Schools.

Fernando De Sousa-Pereira is the Spanish interpreter for all 11 schools in Johnson City, Tennessee. Anyone who greets De Sousa will immediately be met with a firm handshake and a smile.

If a teacher cannot communicate with a child's parents because of a language barrier, De Sousa is called to the school. He is the link between parents and teachers. De Sousa devotes a lot of time and effort into his job.

He works with parents to ensure their child succeeds in school. He wants parents to understand the school system and how it works, which means filling out the load of paperwork students need at the beginning of each school year. He attends parent-teacher conferences if he needs to translate.

"The beginning of the school year is always crazy," De Sousa said. "I'm working seven in the morning to seven at night, and most conferences are after school hours because most of the parents work."

Born and raised in Venezuela, De Sousa never thought he would be working as a school interpreter. In high school he took English as a foreign language. After graduation he worked for American companies in Venezuela, where he strengthened his English.

When De Sousa and his family of four moved to Miami, Florida, in May 2000, he assumed he didn't have to know English well. He never really liked Miami. De Sousa wanted to learn how to speak English, so he decided to move again.

"We moved to Miami as a leap of faith," De Sousa said. "And in Miami you don't really need to know how to speak English. But I soon came to realize that we had to move again. So we moved here to Johnson City, Tennessee, looking for something new and to learn how to speak English."

De Sousa, 52, has lived in Johnson City for 11 years. He said starting out in Johnson City wasn't easy. He began working as a substitute teacher in October 2003.

"My first day was awful," De Sousa said. "A first-grader was helping me translate to the rest of the class. It was embarrassing, but the other teachers were patient with me. They helped me with my English a lot."

"The school system is like my family.  They're so supportive and awesome.  All the schools are awesome.  I have a second chance and I count my blessing every day."

        – Fernando De Sousa-Pereira

After a few months as a substitute, De Sousa heard the school system was looking for a part-time interpreter. He decided to apply for the job.

"I got the job in 2004 and part-time became full-time as the population and demand for interpreters grew," said De Sousa.

One teacher De Sousa helps is Cara Waddell (pictured with him at right), who teaches English as a Second Language at Cherokee Elementary School. She helps students learn to speak English to succeed in their classes, but because she is still learning Spanish she asks De Sousa to speak with parents.


"Whenever we have parent-teacher conferences or need to make a phone call, he will make that phone call," said Waddell. "And he also does parent conferences like the Spanish Night, where he talks to the parents on the rules and regulations of the school system."

On Spanish Night, De Sousa asked the children and parents who don't have English as their second language to gather in a school auditorium or cafeteria. He took an hour to discuss with parents how to handle their child and what they can do to see their child succeed.

De Sousa explains to parents that they are the heads of the household, not the child. He teaches the parents to "cut the cord" with their children. He wants children to show respect to parents and explains how parents are not their slaves.

"I tell the parent that they are the parent and they are the ones who have the rules," De Sousa said. "I tell them the truth like it is. Not all parents want to listen to me. And they let their kids do whatever and not listen."

De Sousa works with pre-kindergarten to high school seniors during the school year. And when the school year is over for the students it's not over for De Sousa. He works summer school and offers high school students the opportunity to earn the community service hours required by Johnson City Schools.

"I have students work with me," De Sousa said. "I teach them organization and to be respectful. They have fun and I keep them busy. Kids come back and work with me each summer so I must be doing something right."

When De Sousa does have leisure time he uses Skype to talk with his family in Venezuela. He hasn't seen his family in over 14 years. De Sousa will send care packages to his family because he said the economy is so bad. He said there are more deaths in Venezuela than there have ever been.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime reports that Venezuela is the only country in South America that has had a consistently increasing homicide rate since 1995. The Venezuelan Violence Observatory reported that the homicide rate has quadrupled over the past 15 years.

De Sousa said he was lucky to get out of his homeland when he could. He said airline tickets to and from Venezuela are almost non-existent now. De Sousa feels fortunate to come to the United States and find a job that allows him to be around people who care for him.

Three years ago De Sousa almost died. He was later diagnosed with pulmonary embolism, meaning he has clots in his lungs. He said he wouldn't know what to do without his Johnson City school family.

"The school system is like my family," De Sousa said. "They're so supportive and awesome. All the schools are awesome. I have a second chance and I count my blessing every day."

De Sousa believes the most important thing in life is to do what one loves. He said he enjoys being in contact with people and making a difference in a child's life. He tries to attend every school graduation.

"I see the potential of a child," De Sousa said, "and I want them to see that potential. When I see one of the kids graduated I feel like I have accomplished something."

De Sousa said he is happy to be in Johnson City. Even though it was hard for him to adjust to new surroundings, he took one day at a time.

"I love Johnson City because I feel like I'm finally at home," De Sousa said. "I care for my neighbors and school system and they care for me. We found a place we can call our home away from home."

 Photo: Veronica Thompson

En español: Un intérprete encuentra su verdadera vocación


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