By Jen Bakken
A little girl happily runs home after school. The second grader can barely contain her excitement.
Holding a hand-written letter, she looks up at her mother and announces, “I have a pen pal from Portugal!”
You may wonder how a child from Delano Elementary School became linked with a child living in Portugal, but if you step into Christy Branes’ classroom, her students can tell you.
After 18 years as an elementary teacher at DES, Christy left to live and teach in Portugal. This school year, she returned and brought with her a multitude of experiences to share with her second grade students.
Many people dream of traveling abroad, but Christy, and her husband, Joel, did more than just travel they made another country their second home.
Their desire to travel began 36 years ago, in Germany. During the Vietnam War, Joel was drafted, and they were married during a weekend pass over Thanksgiving break.
While Joel was sent to Germany, Christy finished out her first year of teaching in Mounds view before joining him overseas. They did a lot of traveling while they were there.
“It gave us the bug to travel,” Christy said.
After three years in Germany, they returned to Minnesota. Joel began studying to be a chiropractor, and Christy went back to teaching in Mounds View for eight years while they began a family. When Joel finished school, he practiced in Plymouth for a while before they moved to Delano in 1984.
With three children, ages 6, 4, and 2 years old, this busy mother was anxious to take a year off to stay home with them. However, while registering her oldest daughter for school, she was asked if she’d be interested substituting at Delano Elementary School.
Following a year of being called in on a frequent basis, she decided she would go back to work. Accepting a part-time position teaching kindergarten in Hanover, she was then approached by DES to teach third grade.
“I’d teach third grade each morning,” she explained. “Then drive to Hanover and teach kindergarten. It was crazy, two different grade levels, two different sets of parents, but I did that for the whole school year.”
Eventually, both schools offered her a full-time position, and Christy quickly accepted the job of third grade teacher at DES. Though she taught different elementary grade levels, she remained with the school for 18 years.
During this time, Christy and Joel raised three children, Sonja, Karna, and Bjorn, and renovated a beautiful old home in town. Joel opened a chiropractic clinic in Delano, where he practiced for 20 years.
With an interest in doing mission work, Joel volunteered his services through their church and the Christian Chiropractic Association, providing care in places where it was unavailable.
When their oldest was studying international business, she lived in Spain, and they were able to visit her. It was the first time they had been to Europe since they lived in Germany. They found the carefree lifestyle fun, and the culture fascinated them.
“We thought, in the back of our minds,” she remembered, “that if we do this mission thing, it would be in a Spanish-speaking country, someday down the road.”
Being enthralled with fashion, Christy had taken a part-time job at Dayton’s, and it was there that their lives took an amazing turn. Working in the cosmetics department, she was approached by a woman looking for a certain type of mascara.
After explaining the store was out of that product, and offering to order it, the woman declined saying she didn’t live in the country, was only here visiting family, and would be leaving the next day. She explained that she lived in Portugal, and was a teacher at a Christian school.
When Christy told the woman she had just taken a course on Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), the woman told Christy she should consider teaching in Portugal.
While admitting she had obligations, Christy mentioned that her husband was also looking for a challenge, and when it was mentioned he was a chiropractor, the woman nearly fell on the floor.
Not only was her husband also a chiropractor, but they had two clinics and were looking for an associate in Portugal.
When Christy handed over a check blank with her name and information, the woman couldn’t believe her eyes. The American associate that was leaving her husband’s clinic in Portugal was also named Joel, and his wife’s name was Christy.
“It was one of those things, it just wasn’t random,” she said. “It still gives me goose bumps.”
When Christy excitedly told her husband about this conversation, he was a bit more skeptical, but she insisted they couldn’t ignore what happened, and had to check it out. A relationship developed through e-mail between the two husbands, and soon, Joel and daughter, Sonja, were on their way to Portugal.
“It was January, so I was teaching,” Christy explained. “They stayed in Portugal for a week and loved it there. There are 10 million people and only 17 chiropractors over there.”
After a chance 15-minute meeting at Dayton’s, and a short visit to Portugal, the couple decided to put Joel’s practice and their home up for sale.
By March, they had sold the family home and went to find an apartment in Portugal, without speaking a word of Portuguese.
“We sold everything, and moved over there in June.” She said. “And I came back the end of August to teach in Delano.”
For two years, they lived separately, Joel in Portugal and Christy in the USA while she continued to teach in Delano. Though there were many trips back and forth, it was tough to live apart.
In 2003, Christy joined her husband full time in Portugal, shocking many people in the Delano community.
“We thought if we said ‘no’ to this adventure, we’d never get the opportunity again,” she admitted.
With her job at a language school, Christy taught English to large and small groups of children in Portuguese schools.
She was then asked to apply for a position at St. Dominic’s International School, and felt honored when offered a position, since most of their hires are from job fairs.
The school held nursery through grade 13, and she taught year one, which is 5 and 6-year-olds. On the first day of school, 22 students walked into her classroom unable to speak a word of English.
“It was challenging, but rewarding,” Christy said with pride. “By the end of the year, they could all read, write, and speak English. It was great.”
With children from Spain, China, Germany, Pakistan, Dubai, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark, she enjoyed having a diverse group.
There were many differences to adjust to while living in Portugal. The pace of life both at work and at home seemed more laid back to them. People made time for conversations, meeting with friends, and relaxing over meals and coffee.
“We’re finding life much more intense and busy now that we are back,” admitted Christy. “Our schedules are much more rigid.”
There were also differences in education and teaching. Christy is quick to point out how wonderful Delano’s school system is adding that the teachers here are very professional and dedicated, which we sometimes take for granted.
“I really knew that when I was teaching in Portugal, because what we considered the norm here, was considered over-the-top there,” she said. “They couldn’t believe how much time I put into my teaching.”
After teaching in Portugal with a half-hour morning break and an hour lunch each day, Christy now finds herself rushing to eat at her desk.
As a sign of respect, students would kiss the cheeks of their teacher at the end of the day, and they weren’t as busy rushing around after school like children here are. Supplies were hard to come by over there however, and a simple piece of construction paper was 25 cents.
Though this couple loved living and working in Portugal they did miss their home and family. They never had a formal plan on how long they would stay, but being so immersed in the culture, lifestyle, and people, they worried if they stayed any longer, it would be increasingly more difficult to leave.
With three children and a new grandson named Noah, they decided it was time to return, and did so over the summer.
Joel is in the process of rebuilding his chiropractic practice, Branes Chiropractic and Wellness with an office located in Mound.
Christy returned to DES, where her current second grade class is thrilled they’ve become pen pals with her former students in Portugal. Together, they have been getting reacquainted with family, friends, and the culture here.
As for the future, they do plan to travel and possibly do short-term mission work someday.
“Right now, we are trying to get grounded,” she said. “But I can’t imagine us not doing something eventually.”