MIDDLEBURY, Vt.-Travel and a warm climate have become synonymous with the college spring break ritual. Yet, for seven Middlebury College students, spring vacation was not a trip to the beach but rather an opportunity to help the residents of Cerro Bonito, a small, rural farming village of 25 families in the central highlands of Honduras. The students, who are members of the College's chapter of the Jewish campus organization Hillel, and Middlebury College Associate Chaplain and Rabbi Ira Schiffer, arrived in Honduras on March 21 to participate in a week-long service project. Together with a group of students from the Williams College chapter of Hillel, they worked on the construction of a new one-room school for the 35 children of the village.
The American Jewish World Service (AJWS), in conjunction with Project Global Village, a Honduran based non-governmental organization, arranged the service program.
The group of students, along with one rabbi from each college, completed the construction of the school, which had been started before they arrived. Their tasks included painting, building a concrete sidewalk, and digging and constructing a latrine.
The project provided many opportunities to interact with the local community throughout the workday. Schiffer said, "The students had a great, organized discussion with community members, separated by gender, to discuss the roles of men and women in rural Honduras, the community's hopes and aspirations, and the villagers' perceptions of the students and of the United States. The group was welcomed with open arms into the community, which really appreciated the work they did together." Schiffer also noted that students and local Hondurans joined in cross-cultural singing and dancing as well as the production of cross-cultural hybrids such as Star-of-David-shaped tortillas.
Middlebury College junior Mike Vilarello of Miami, Fl., who was the student organizer of the trip, found the contrasts between cultures as interesting as the similarities. Vilarello said, "The experience was amazing. We were building a school to enhance education in the area. The villagers saw the school and education as a way to get out of the town. They talked about the brain drain?how their best students leave to study in the capital Tegucigalpa and never come back. I suggested that they encourage their students to come back and visit, even if they live in Tegucigalpa, to help with sustainable agricultural practices and education."
Middlebury College sophomore Liz Braunstein of Oradell, N.J., who also went to Honduras, said, "The women were very strong. The most important thing for them was that their children live better lives than they did. They only wanted the best for their children and they hoped that their children would never want something that a neighbor had. They were more optimistic about their town than the men."
Despite the remoteness of Cerro Bonito, which lacks plumbing and electricity and is two hours from the nearest doctor, the residents stay abreast of current events by listening to the radio. "They knew what was going on in Iraq and that two Hondurans had died there. They wondered, if there were so many American servicemen and women in Iraq, would that mean more job openings for them if they moved to the U.S.," said Vilarello.
"They expressed sympathy for us because of 9/11, which was amazing since they lead such difficult lives. Their sympathy only brought us closer to them and showed us how the world is a much smaller place than we think it is," added Braunstein.
According to Vilarello, the students helped break down some stereotypical images that the villagers had of Americans. "I was the only male student in our group so they saw women doing manual labor, which is traditionally a job for the men in their community. Also, they were surprised since they thought most Americans hired others to do this type of work," he said.
"In the end their community wasn't very different from ours," said Vilarello.
The students' last day in Cerro Bonito was marked with a despedida, a goodbye party and ceremony, with the community. During the festivities, students and villagers, standing side by side, painted one of the interior school walls with their handprints.
Vilarello said that the students are planning several possible campus events to share their experience with fellow Middlebury students, including a photo exhibit and a slide show presentation accompanied by a discussion. The group will also have a booth at a hunger banquet scheduled for April 16 and sponsored by Hillel and the Middlebury College Volunteer Service Organization.
Braunstein and Vilarello stressed that all the Middlebury students who went to Honduras want to make sure that a similar trip becomes an annual event. According to Vilarello, the chances for another trip are already strong since there are now several students who can help make plans for next year. One faculty member has already expressed an interest in joining the students in 2005.
Along with Vilarello and Braunstein, Middlebury College students who traveled to Honduras were senior Alyssa Finn of Wayland, Mass., sophomore Rebecca Kaufman of Northampton, Mass., and first-year students Sarah Lauing of Palo Alto, Calif., Rachel Rosenfeld of St. Louis, Mo., and Arielle Weisman of Newton, Mass.
The service project was made possible by grants and support from several Middlebury College organizations: the Middlebury College Aquinnah Fund, the Student Government Association Finance Committee, the Center for Campus Activities, and the Chaplain's Office.
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