Early in the morning on a hot and humid July day in Central America, a group of Los Altos High School students begin their work. One foot in front of the other, they haul armfuls of bricks up a steep hill.
When they finish working for the day, the students return to the homes of their host families – but not to play video games or log on to the Internet. They share a family dinner, then help wash dishes before playing board games.
During the two-week trip to Nicaragua to build classrooms for underprivileged youth, the Los Altos High students did just fine without many of the comforts they are accustomed to. The dramatic change in lifestyle may have been good for them.
Just ask Los Altos senior Gaby Seltzer.
“I totally appreciate everything and it changed my perspective,” Seltzer said, “but also, I want to do something with everything that I’ve gotten out of it. It definitely made me see that I can make differences on a personal level.”
That was clear from the start of the trip, sponsored by the One Dollar For Life high school charity. Although the students split their time evenly between building two elementary-school classrooms and touring the country, the main focus was on the construction project.
The students spent six days with Nicaraguan host families while working on the classrooms.
“The classrooms were in kind of a broken down, wooden building,” said senior Sophia Steffens. “It just wasn’t really proper for them to be learning in. They didn’t have enough desks and things, so we built them two new classrooms.”
The students contributed hundreds of man-hours and laid the foundation for the classrooms.
“We got all of the brick walls up and then they were going to do a layer of cement,” Seltzer said. “We built the foundation and leveled the ground and all that kind of stuff.”
Although the students were not able to finish the project, other volunteer groups will put the finishing touches on the new classrooms in the coming months.
The Nicaraguan children usually attended classes in two buildings on the same site while the Americans worked on the addition. One day, the children took a break from their lessons to help the Los Altos students.
“My favorite part was when we were working on the school and the kids, who were probably between first- and sixth-graders, came outside when they should have been in classes,” Steffens said. “They all came out and helped us with a lot of the work, so it was just really nice to see we were really working together to build their new classroom. We all had the same goals.”
That’s the lasting memory Steffens retains from the trip. Despite significant cultural and economic differences, she found striking similarities between life in the Bay Area and Nicaragua.
“I think really the most important part was getting to see what other people lived like and seeing all the differences, but also seeing really mostly all the similarities,” Steffens said. “Little things are different. The food is different, how people dress is different, their schools are different, but the families all really support each other and are close knit and really value their families and I think that’s similar to how it is here.”