This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Monika Zaleska
Thirteen Philadelphia students just returned from the trip of a lifetime, but they weren’t on a vacation. The group of students – some from Furness, Bodine, and West Philadelphia high schools — spent two weeks helping to break ground for a new school in Nicaragua.
The students are members of buildOn, a national nonprofit group that turns local volunteer hours into opportunities for students to extend their service outside the United States. The organization works with any willing and motivated District student, but sends its most dedicated volunteers to help begin the construction of schools in underresourced countries like Mali and Haiti. The excursions are free of charge to students and the District.
“Whatever your challenges are in life, you can be a success at buildOn,” said Joanna Branch, the organization’s Pennsylvania manager.
Some students selected for this trip completed up to 200-300 hours of community service, though there is no hourly requirement to get selected. They made meals for the homeless, visited shelters, and volunteered at senior homes. Overall, buildOn Philadelphia has logged some 12,000 hours.
Program and trek coordinator Rashida Brooks led the July trip to San José, a small village in Nicaragua. Brooks, who has led three expeditions this year alone, said she can already see the effects the trip has had on the students.
“You hear them say things like, ‘I’m going to go home and tell my friends not to waste food.’… The conversations I’ve gotten to have with the students after [the trip] is a blessing,” she said.
Before and during their trip, Brooks and the students had workshops on cultural understanding, team building within the group, and the history and language of Nicaragua. The idea is to prep kids for what is probably their first trip out of the country and to keep drawing on their new experience long after they head back to Philadelphia.
“I learned how to appreciate all the little things I have,” said Joy Chiles, who attends Delaware Valley Charter High School. “Until something is gone, you really don’t appreciate it, like how our school district is [suffering] now.”
In San José, the 15-year-old became close to her host family. They bonded while watching music videos and Spanish soap operas, though communication was sometimes difficult.
But the trip wasn’t all play. Jeremiah McFarland, 16, of Bodine High School, recalled his first day on the school construction site. That day they made concrete from scratch and dug the foundations for the new building.
“I was really exhausted because I wasn’t in shape," he said. "But I pushed through it because I was building this school for other children.”
Members of buildOn provide the unskilled labor needed to break ground on school sites throughout the countries that the organization serves. They work for about four hours daily, and then debrief, journal, and spend time with the community kids.
buildOn members pose with locals at the school construction site in San Jose, Nicaragua. (Photo: Courtesy of buildOn)
Chiles and McFarland said their favorite part of the trip was connecting with their host families and the other villagers. Students not only learned about a different community, they became a part of it.
“The little kids were so eager to learn English, and just to have an education," McFarland said. "In the United States we take our schools for granted.”
He says his favorite thing about buildOn is that it makes him feel welcome and keeps him motivated to do positive things.
District spokesperson Fernando Gallard, a native of Nicaragua, said he applauds the students for their efforts.
“As someone that understands the situation in regards to public education over there, it is really a tremendous service to the kids when someone comes in and provides resources,” Gallard said.
“It says a lot about the students of Philadelphia that they are willing to go on this trip. It’s not an easy journey”.
Monika Zaleska is an intern at the Notebook.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the selection requirements buildOn used to choose students for this trip.