UMass Boston Upward Bound Students Help Build School Out of Trash in Guatemala

Crystal Bozek | November 14, 2011

A group of UMass Boston-based Upward Bound students traveled to Guatemala for seven days in August, where they helped to build a school out of trash materials — old tires, glass, plastic bottles, and dirt — and created hope for a community in need. 

The youth-led group named themselves the Get Fresh Crew and raised more than $12,000 to travel to Comalapa, Guatemala, where they helped the nonprofit organization Long Way Home build Técnico Maya, a technical vocational school to teach community youth how to live and build sustainably. The students, who hail from Hyde Park, Dorchester, Roxbury, and Mattapan, wanted to create educational opportunities for their global peers.  The school will provide traditional Mayan education to the indigenous people of Comalapa and will also teach “green” job skills.

Right now, schooling ends at sixth grade in the Guatemalan community. There is no trash collection so people throw their garbage in rivers or burn large trash piles, further polluting the air and water. The unemployment rate soars above 75 percent.

“[The people in Comalapa] opened my eyes to what we take for granted every day: a lifestyle full of happiness and a sense of peace even though you can clearly see the years of struggle and labor upon these people’s faces,” said student Faetitia Desamours, from Hyde Park.  “I learned about a culture most people know nothing about.”

The UMass Boston Upward Bound Get Fresh Crew students are low-income, first-generation college-bound youth.  Most of the students attend Boston Public Schools and are passionate about justice and the environment. This youth-led environmental service-learning trip is a model for what youth can do when given the opportunity to learn and act.

The group learned about the school-building mission while at a Radically Sustainable Building architecture workshop at BuildBoston in 2009.  After the workshop, the students decided that they wanted to contribute to the project and asked Director Erica Pernell, “So, when can we go?”

Prior to the trip the Get Fresh Crew learned about radical sustainability, indigenous Guatemalan culture, social justice, educational opportunity, and self-awareness.

While in Comalapa, the students stayed with an indigenous family and manually labored for seven hours each day to build the school.  Students posted daily reflections on the Get Fresh Crew blog.

“Working at the school site was the best time ever because I pushed myself harder than I ever had.  I was in every task I could.  I challenged myself to stick to hammering the nails in the tires and wheeling the wheelbarrows, “ wrote Get Fresh Crew member Yvesha Bellevue from Dorchester.  “I loved today’s work and was strengthened by it because I wanted to do better for those children, myself, and everything the organization stood for.”

Every student described the experience as life-changing.  “I understand the importance of education, listening to my elders when I am told, and to just all around be a more simple character rather than the complex individual I once was,” wrote student Kara Blackwell, also from Dorchester. “My view of life is different now.”

The students plan on holding workshops for community, youth, and school groups to share their experience as green builders in Guatemala. 

The Get Fresh Crew will put on a performance from 4 to 5 p.m. on Friday, November 18 in the Lipke Auditorium at UMass Boston. The performance will include a multimedia presentation, a live skit written and performed by the students, a photo discussion, a video, and a Q&A session.  There will also be artifacts from Guatemala and a large poster about the trip for guests to view.

The students were proud to join the ranks of many international volunteers who have contributed to the school project.  “Many people have come from all over the world to participate in this life-changing opportunity.  I am glad the Get Fresh Crew’s fingerprints are part of the construction and the soon-to-be success,” wrote Get Fresh Crew member Widly Bazelais, originally from Roxbury.

“We were here for a purpose that is so far beyond filling tires with dirt and bottles with trash. Our service is part of the hopes and dreams of the community of Comalapa and Comalapa feeds our dreams,” said Upward Bound Director Erica Pernell. “By being here to build this school, we have grown immensely, both individually and as a group. … When we left here, we were forever changed.  We will never be able to look at injustice and idly stand by.  We will feel the unmistakable urge to fight for those whose voices are silenced.”

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