How a foreign exchange program changed the life of an educator in Wallingford

WALLINGFORD — While living in Chile pursuing her career as a teacher, Georgina Cabrera never thought a foreign exchange program would change her life, leading her to help the local Latino community as a bilingual educator.

Before meeting Georgina, his wife, Fred Bustos came to Wallingford as a foreign exchange student from Chile at 18 years old. Bustos entered Sheehan High School as a senior and became the first and only student hosted by Joe and Maxine Snyder through the American Field Service, a foreign exchange program.

“I asked my son if he would be interested in having a brother his senior year,” Maxine Snyder said.

family bond

After the program, Bustos went back to Chile where he began seeing Cabrera, who was a teacher. Eventually, they got married and had two children, Felipe and Valentina. But just because the exchange program ended, didn’t mean the bond diminished. The Snyders stayed in touch through many letters to Busts.

The conversation about coming back to the United States started in 1995, when the Snyders visited Bustos and Cabrera in Chile. Bustos came to the US in 1996. Cabrera and the children came in 1997 when the school year ended.

“I was scared when I came to Wallingford because I didn’t know any English,” Cabrera said. “I was leaving everything and I was so lucky to have mom and dad by our side.” She refers to the Snyders as “mom and dad.”

Between Hanukkah and Christmas

Cabrera found herself integrating her family with the Snyders, Although Cabrera and Bustos are Catholic and the Snyders are Jewish, they found ways to celebrate together.

“I remember it was Hanukkah and Christmas time, so we asked ‘which one should we celebrate?’ and we ended up celebrating both. We hosted Hanukkah and Gina hosted Christmas,” Joe Snyder said.

Cabrera has shared her Chilean culture with the couple, especially food.

“When we cook Chilean food, mom and dad are always the first ones to grab a plate,” Cabrera said.

In 2007, the Snyder family decided to move to South Carolina. For two years, Bustos and Cabrera took care of the couple’s home and purchased it in 2009.

Both children also came to the US not knowing English but eventually succeeded. Her son, Felipe, was in the Air Force for six years before moving to a career in information technology. Valentina went to school for cosmetology and has had a successful career as a barber and hair stylist.

Hosting a foreign exchange student

In 2015, Cabrera and Bustos made the decision to host a foreign exchange student from Mexico named Marisol Becerra. She went to Sheehan High School during her year with them.

“We decided to do the program too,” Cabrera said. “When she came, I instantly thought of her as my own daughter. Now, I have two daughters.”

Cabrera has photos of all three around her house, including the family on vacation.

On her most recent vacation, Cabrera and her daughter visited Becerra and went to Isla Mujeres, a Mexican island in the Caribbean sea. Cabrera said they are making plans to visit Becerra this summer.

“This program is a great way to build connections and relationships,” Cabrera said. “I’m so blessed to have been able to meet her.”

Career in the Latino Community

Since coming to Wallingford, Cabrera has had a successful career.

She worked at a daycare for eight years and started to learn English. She also took English classes at Wallingford Adult Education.

She became more involved with the Spanish community when she started teaching catechism at Most Holy Trinity Church.

In 2005, Cabrera received her green card and started to work in the Wallingford Public School system in 2006. She started at Parker Farmer Elementary School as a part-time bilingual paraeducator. She later became full time at Moses Y Beach Elementary School.

In 2013, she was named the top paraeducator in the state, winning what is now known as the Anne Marie Murphy Paraeducator of the Year Award.

Cabrera now works at the Wallingford Public Library. On Mondays and Wednesdays from 4 to 8 pm she helps those learning English.

“I help parents understand papers that are being sent home since most of them are in English,” Cabrera said. “I also volunteer at the Spanish Community of Wallingford. It’s amazing because most of the students I have worked with now work there.”

Cabrera said it is important to help others learn English.

“I understand them because I was once in their shoes,” Cabrera said. “Learning a new language is scary, which is why I try to make it easier for them.”

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