Eleven Mattituck High School seniors had the experience of a lifetime during winter break, when they flew to Honduras to build a house for a family of seven who had been living in a shack that was constantly exposed to floods.
They were all students of English teacher Tom Farrell, who has now taken four groups to the Central American country as volunteers for a program called Grace the Americas, which helps people living in poverty in Latin America.
“I take kids I think can handle the trip emotionally and can get something out of the trip,” said Mr. Farrell.
The trips are not sponsored by the school, and each student raised the funds needed for the trip and the opportunity to spend a week working in oppressive heat and uncomfortable living conditions. Most of the people they met live in one-room cardboard and bamboo shacks with dirt floors.
They raised $3,500 for building materials for the house and each paid between $1,200 and $1,400 for airfare, food and lodging in Honduras.
“My parents laughed when I told them I was going to build a house,” said student Marissa Russo, as a group of students watched a slide show from the trip at the school Monday evening. Ms. Russo said the trip was the best thing she had ever done in her life.
“The house they lived in before was very sad to see, very humbling,” she said.
Every day, the group would rise at 6:30 a.m. at the home of Don Benigno, who runs Grace the Americas’ Honduran operation. After breakfast, they’d pile into the back of a Mazda pickup with their translator, Franklin Ruiz, who also served as their crew leader on the job site.
“It was beyond the point of saying you’re sweaty,” student Zoe Campbell said of the work. Student Fiona Gorman said that young boys would follow them, laughing, because they’d never seen women do such backbreaking work.
Student Emily Comando said nearly everyone they met lived in a shack without running water or electricity, except for people with family in the United States who were sending money home.
“The hardest part was seeing it finished when we were leaving,” she said of the house they built.
The group took some time at the end of each day to meet people in the countryside and visit other Grace the Americas project sites. Before leaving, they played a game of soccer with kids in the community. The Mattituck students won. On their last day, Mr. Farrell took the building crew on a bus trip to see the Mayan ruin of Copan. Every student fell asleep, exhausted by their home-building exercise, within a few minutes after the bus ride began.
At night, dozens of young kids in the neighborhood would gather around the students, asking to take pictures with their cameras and teaching them to use a small toy called a trombo, something like a cross between a top and a yo-yo.
Student Tim MacNish brought a trombo home with him to school and practiced tricks with it in the classroom as the students ate rice and beans and reminisced about their adventure.
“It’s an experience you can only understand by being there,” he said of his time building the house and playing with the kids.
“I learned from the kids how to be more loving. That’s because of the amount of love you get from them. They just give it so freely,” said Morgan Zuhoski.
“They were so appreciative if you just gave them a shirt, something that you’d have 20 of back home,” said Zoe Campbell.
Every one of the students said they’d go back in a heartbeat if they could. And they’re now busy raising money for school uniforms, backpacks and shoes for the kids they met in Honduras.
Information on the school supply drive can be found at gracetheamericas.org.
Other students who took the trip were Ashley Goeller, Amber Mello, Joseph Pfaff, Rebekah Smith and Katherine Wilcenski.