Imagine a holiday that involves spending 80 hours on a bus with a group of strangers. And carrying your luggage – along with a bus load of tools and building materials – across an international border. And working in extreme heat during the day and sharing your rustic living quarters with the local wildlife at night.
It wasn’t a 5-star vacation but it was all-inclusive for more than 20 college employees and students who participated in the Little House on the Baja project this summer. Meals and accommodation were provided, plus the chance to change people’s lives.
Organized by Joe Grove, an electrical instructor, and his wife Connie, an academic advisor, a team of 46 people from the college and community travelled to Vicente Guerrero on the Baja Peninsula to build a school.
While the Groves organized previous trips in 2007 and 2009 to build houses for families less fortunate, this was the first time they had the opportunity to build a school. Ranging in age from 13-65, the trip brought together people from all walks of life and included more families and young people than on previous trips.
Long before the team boarded the bus on July 4, countless details needed to be arranged. From booking accommodations on the road to fundraising the thousands of dollars needed for building supplies, the Groves, along with support from college employees Deanna Ries and Angela Guest, put in many hours of work to prepare for the trip.
“I saw how large a job it was behind the scenes. The logistics of getting a group of 46 people from Medicine Hat to Mexico is a challenge,” said Ries who went on the trip in 2009. “I knew I had skills that could help with the organization of the trip and was very grateful for the opportunity.”
Whether they were coordinating bus stops, fielding questions from the group or even unplugging toilets at the base camp, Ries and Guest, who have worked together in IT Services at MHC for 15 years, saw the trip from a new perspective and look forward to even greater involvement on future projects.
Guest, who also went on the trip in 2009, was excited to be involved with a project that impacted youth. As the mother of two small children, she recognized an opportunity do something more for the trip while sharing the experience with them.
With the help of her seven-year-old daughter, Guest became actively involved with collecting school supplies and other items for the students in Mexico. Thanks to the generosity of students and parents in the community of Seven Persons, her collection bins were soon over flowing with new and gently used school supplies, running shoes, sporting equipment and clothing.
A strong believer in reducing, recycling and even refusing, Guest used the project to serve as a reminder of how much we take for granted in our society. For students in Mexico, items that are forgotten or discarded by children here are the gifts that will allow them to get an education and improve their quality of life.
With the details organized and the team ready for adventure, the bus left Medicine Hat on a 40-hour journey to Vicente Guerrero, about four hours south of Tijuana on the west coast of the Baja Peninsula.
According to Joe and Connie, the2014 team was the most skilled group they had ever taken to Mexico. Not only were there carpenters, electricians and jack-of-all-trades, there were plenty of people willing to learn something new and by the end of the second day, the group’s skill set had grown along with the school.
With only four days to complete the project, the team quickly divided into various groups and began framing, wiring, painting, constructing the roof - even digging the baño.
In addition to the build itself, another important aspect of the Baja projects is spending time with the local children. A team of 10 was charged with arranging activities and playing with the children who arrived on the job site to watch their school take shape.
Regardless of their role, everyone found a way to contribute, said Ries.
Rowanne Frey, an administrative assistant in Student Services, and her husband, were first-timers to the Baja. The experience didn’t disappoint.
“Although my heart broke a few times for the children- and the stray dogs - the trip was a wonderful experience for both of us. It was really, really hard work but my expectations were totally met.”
Highlights for Frey included arriving at the base camp where the group stayed during the build, seeing the walls go up at the school, watching the sun set over the ocean, and sharing in the presentation of the new school. Some members of the group visited an orphanage where Frey hopes there may be opportunities to volunteer on future trips.
At the orphanage, there is also a daycare which is critical to the community, added Guest, as children as young as age two are being left home alone while their parents go to work.
“The orphanage is so well-run and it was awesome to see the different programs offered there including the free day care, soup kitchen and hygiene education. The experience was mind-blowing to me. The more you go on these trips, the more educated you become about the area and its challenges,” said Guest , who hopes to be part of longer term projects in the future.
For Morgan Penrod, a UT science student at MHC, the memories of her experience on the Baja project will stay with her for a lifetime.
“In many ways I feel as though the people in Vicente did more for us than we did for them. It was very clear that this was a community that had so little, yet was so willing to come together and provide in any way possible. This trip definitely opened my eyes to a very different lifestyle than the one many of us have become accustomed to here in Canada. Seeing those kids who have so little, yet are so happy with even the smallest of things, showed me how much we take for granted,” said Penrod, who had a tough time saying goodbye to the kids.
“Many do not realize how privileged we are to receive an education. As a student, I wanted to be able to help these children have the opportunities they so deserve.”
These children, along with their school teachers and administrators, were all present and full of anticipation – as they had been throughout the build - when their new school was finally turned over to them. The two room structure measures 20 ft. x 44 ft. and will accommodate 70 students.
Following the school presentation, the group visited the sites of previous house builds to reconnect with the families. The house that was built in 2007, which was wired for power, now has electricity. The photo of the team still hangs on the family’s wall.
It was an emotional reunion, said Connie, and proof that these projects have a long term impact.
Sitting around the campfire and reflecting on the events of the previous four days, the comments from the participants about the experience were as different as the people themselves.
Now imagine a holiday that turned strangers into friends. That the tools you carried built a school for children who may not have had a chance at an education. That your hard work changed the lives of an entire community.
Check out more photos on Facebook and a time lapse video of the build on the Baja, featured on Global News.
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