STEVENSVILLE — Christine Custer Velasco was surprised when she moved to Stevensville four years ago with her husband and four kids.

“My husband’s from Mexico, so we have always spoke Spanish in the home,” she said. “In California it was really easy to do anything Spanish with our kids. When we moved here we saw that we didn’t have anything. So we were like, we have to get this started.”

So Velasco founded an after-school Spanish program and Mexican Dance team to share the language and the culture with Southwest Michigan.

“I wanted to be able to give them that same opportunity that many others have around the world to learn a second language,” she said.

From that, I Heart Spanish was born.

“One day I was reading a blog of some other white girl like me who teaches Spanish and loves it and she said how sometimes she feels really intimidated speaking to native speakers because her Spanish isn’t perfect,” Velasco said. “But she finally had this ‘A-ha’ moment when she knew her Spanish wasn’t perfect, but she loved Spanish and that’s why she started teaching it. It just hit me: ‘That’s me!’ I heart Spanish so much.”

Velasco said she could always speak a little Spanish, like saying “hola” and “como estas,” but it wasn’t until she was 21 and signed up for a mission through her church that she was really immersed in the language.

“I belong to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and they send missionaries all over the world speaking hundreds of languages,” she said. “When you sign up you don’t know what language you’ll be speaking, or what country you’ll go to, but I said I would love to learn Spanish.”

She spent a year and a half in the Oakland, Calif., mission.

“I was amongst Mexicans, Argentines, Salvadorians, Cubans, Peruvians, and really solidifying my hola,” Velasco said. “Then when I got to college, I found my husband, who’s from southern Mexico, and my in-laws don’t speak very much English and I got to practice with them.”

Her and her family just returned from a month-long trip to Chiapas, Mexico, to visit her husband’s family.

She said that’s how she wishes kids could learn a different language.

“There are 22 countries that speak Spanish in the world,” Velasco said. “I would love if they took advantage of the high school trips and I would love to see parents taking their kids on these international trips, if they have the time and can afford it.”

She said even a child just practicing their “hola” and “como estas” is great.

“Even if it’s that much, you get so confident,” she said. “If they can learn to ask everyone that and answer back ‘muy bien,’ by the time they get to eight grade Spanish, they’re confident already.”

I Heart Spanish teaches kids from preschool and up. 

It started with an after-school program at Roosevelt Elementary, then expanded to the different elementary schools in Lakeshore Public Schools and did one at Brown Elementary in St. Joseph. I Heart Spanish even runs programs for homeschool groups.

For the last couple of Monday mornings, Velasco has been putting on Spanish Story Time at the Lincoln Township Library.

This semester she has four teachers doing after-school Spanish. All of her teachers, but two including her, are native Spanish speakers. In the last three years the program has reached more than 300 children.

After the first year of after-school classes is when I Heart Spanish formed a Mexican dance group.

“Another popular thing in California is Baile folklórico, literally “folkloric dance” in Spanish,” Velasco said. “Each region in Mexico has their own dress and their own dance. So, for example, when we get out our dresses that are all white, everyone from Mexico knows its from Veracruz.”

Right now there are 14 girl dancers who are all of Mexican descent.

“All have a mom, a dad or both from Mexico. It’s all local girls who have never done it before. They’re all from Benton Harbor, Lakeshore and St. Joseph,” Velasco said. “We’re the only Mexican dance team in this pocket of Southwest Michigan.”

The dancers takes donations for their different dresses and were even granted funds through the Lakeshore Endowment Fund last year to another region’s traditional dresses hand-made from Mexico.

When the dance team goes to perform, Velasco usually gives a presentation about Spanish Heritage or Mexican history, or maybe Dia de los Muertos or Cinco de Mayo.

“I love that we can come in and have this hands-on experience of teaching them the culture, teaching them the language and showing them the dancers,” she said.

And she said it’s so important for the girls.

“They’re not just coming to dance, they’re representing their country,” Velasco said. “I want people to see the beauty of Mexico. That these beautiful, sweet girls represent an amazing country with thousands of years of history that we can share in our community and embrace.”

I Heart Spanish sits on a committee for a local group called One World.

“We are this international colorful group that gets together and plans free activities for the community with that same passion that it doesn’t matter what culture, or what language, we are One World,” Velasco said.

On Thursday, I Heart Spanish, One World and the Lincoln Township Library will host an event celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month.

“The month, Sept. 15 to Oct. 15, is celebrating Hispanics who have made an impact on the U.S., and  we’ve sort of expanded it to Hispanics who’ve made an impact on the world, too,” Velasco said.

The event, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the library, will include crafts, booths, tortilla-making, Spanish story time and a performance by the Mexican Dance Team.

I Heart Spanish is also in the progress of registration for Spanish classes for students K-5.

Classes start at 3:45 p.m. Monday, Oct. 14. To register, or for more information, visit www.facebook.com/iheartspanishclass.

Velasco said her favorite part of running I Heart Spanish is teaching.

“I love this so much. I always have and I always will. I feel like I’m doing my dream job right now,” she said. 

Contact: anewman@TheHP.com, 932-0357, Twitter: @HPANewman