On July 1, 2014, seven high school students from Reno, Nevada travelled to the tiny village of Bambu, Nicaragua to build a school for the impoverished families living there. These students had spent the better part of the previous school year raising over $30,000 to fund the actual materials and construction of the school. They went with a national non-profit organization called buildOn, a group striving to better the world through education by building schools in third world countries. buildOn works in Mali, Burkina Faso, Malawi, Nicaragua, Haiti, Senegal, and Nepal. In these countries, they travel to villages in which the families fall below the poverty line. Furthermore, these villages do not have schools suitable for a learning environment.
The buildOn organization was started by Jim Ziolkowski, author of Walk in Their Shoes: Can One Person Change the World?, who built his first school in Malawi in the early 1990’s and is now part of buildOn’s movement. buildOn not only helps students in developing countries, but it also betters the lives of high school students in the United States. In cities where high school students will likely end up associating themselves with gangs and other unsafe groups, buildOn gives these students an opportunity to be part of something greater and not only become passionate about it, but to better the lives of other people around the world while also bettering their own lives. Over 500 schools have been built around the world through the efforts of buildOn!
This year’s trip to Nicaragua demonstrated to these students from Reno, Nevada how different third world countries truly are. Despite many problems in the United States, children are still faced with much greater opportunities here than they are presented with in places like Bambu. Bambu was a two hour drive away from any city in Nicaragua, and was located in the remote mountains. The village has limited roads, no plumbing, running water, or other luxuries that we consider to be necessities in the US. The little electricity they had allowed for two single light bulbs in each house and nothing else.
Not only are the accomodations in their homes scarce, but the resources in their schools are even more meager. The previous “schoolhouse” was nothing more than a single wall, a tin roof supported by branches, a whiteboard, and a few rows of desks. The children did not possess books and merely had a single small notebook and perhaps a pencil or pen. Ages four through thirteen shared the same classroom and sat through the same lessons directed by two teachers (both under the age of 20). The buildOn organization and the students traveling on the trek, helped to build a two-classroom, four-walled cinderblock schoolhouse with concrete flooring and a substantial roof. Additionally, buildOn partners with the local district government to ensure that they will provide teachers, books, desks, and other learning materials. They also guarantee that at least 50% of the students will be girls.
However, one of my biggest takeaways is that the children and young adults are so eager to learn! While most of the adult male villagers work on the local coffee plantation and the women stay at home, it was exciting to hear the dreams and ambitions of the young children of the village: “I want to be a doctor, teacher, lawyer, engineer, etc.” The gift of education can help these children realize their dreams, as well as improve the lives of the villagers around them.
My other eye-opening observation was that despite lack of the “creature comforts” that we expect to have in the USA, these people were still truly happy without all of the excess we have in our lives. Other than the occasional crying baby, not once did we hear a raised voice, see an unhappy face, or see a downtrodden look. The younger generation interacted continuously and seamlessly with the older generation, and there was always a steady stream of visitors through the humble home we shared with our host family. Everyone was always smiling! In fact, we had so many visitors in our family’s home that until the last day we were never sure who was and was not a member of the extended family! While I was happy to come home to a toilet vs. a latrine, a hot shower, and a meal other than rice and beans, I truly missed the simplicity of life in the village. We rose at 4:30 each morning with the sun to make tortillas with our “house mom,” and were working on the construction site side-by-side with the villagers by 7am, followed by a well-balanced lunch of more rice & beans at noon. Afternoons were filled with learning to cook traditional Nicaraguan meals, touring the coffee plantations, hiking to waterfalls in the amazing countryside or playing pato pato ganza (duck duck goose) and “London Bridge” with the children. Dinner was a light meal followed by story-telling and games with our village families. We introduced them to Uno, Jenga, Yahtzee, marbles … Lights out by 7:30 as the sun went down and darkness settled upon the village.
The most difficult part was saying goodbye. It is unlikely that we will ever return to the village, but we have become long-distance relatives to our host families and will do our best to remain in touch despite the communication challenges. And who knows, maybe someday we shall see the name of one of the children of our village of Bambu make the national headlines of Nicaragua or the international stage of the U.N.
As a final contribution to the new school, Little Pickle Press generously donated over 25 copies of “Your Fantastic Elastic Brain” to these children. These children have always been so grateful for what we have given them, and thus showed great appreciation for the books. We could not be more grateful for the help that Little Pickle Press has given to us!
Courtney Leonard is a senior at Sage Ridge School in Reno, Nevada. She has been a member of the Sage Ridge School buildOn Chapter since her freshman year, contributing to raising over $60,000 each year to build schools in impoverished third world countries. She participated in the treks to build the schools in Nicaragua in her sophomore and junior years. This year, she is the President of the buildOn Chapter at Sage Ridge and will head up the efforts to raise another $30,000-$60,000 to build two more schools next summer. This year’s goal is to raise money to build one or two schools in Haiti.
Courtney is also active in her schools’ theatre program, is the co-editor of the school newspaper, and co-chair of the Sage Ridge Honor Council. She has always been an honor student throughout her Sage Ridge career. In her spare time, Courtney runs a dessert business with her mom, tutors in Latin and Spanish, and enjoys snow-skiing and water-skiing.