Bells Bonding at IPODERAC

Hola Amigos,

Last we left you, we were enjoying Easter Sunday in the festive streets of Puebla. As we left Puebla for IPODERAC, our jubilation began to shift to excitement, anxiety and curiosity as we drove towards the mighty Popocatepetl volcano and IPODERAC, our home for the next week. It began to set in that for the next six nights we would be guests, welcome but very different from the 64 boys living at Ipo. We also knew that the comforts of our luxury hotel in Mexico City would soon to be replaced by one house and all 23 boys would be sharing the living, bathing, cooking and eating space and responsible for cleanliness and maintenance.

Despite the challenges, our boys hit the ground running. Upon arrival, we were greeted by our wonderful volunteer coordinator, Teresa, and given an orientation of the history and current workings of Ipo. Our boys listened intently as we strolled through the various houses, offices, soccer fields, workshops and green spaces that comprise this community. At the end, we were shown to our house where our boys made themselves at home (respectfully), then came outside and began to meet our new brothers. After initial conversations in Spanish and a quick soccer game our group retired to get some rest for our first service day.

After preparing and eating breakfast, showering and a deep cleaning of their house, our boys were eager to start their service work at 9am sharp. April is the heart of the dry season here and we are taking advantage of the clear skies to protect the roofs of IPODERAC with a waterproof sealant. The work involves cleaning the roofs and carefully “sweeping” them with the red liquid. Given the nature of working on roofs, our boys have to take special care to be safe, thorough and work as a team. Yesterday we completed nearly three houses before breaking for our midday meal. After a comida of stewed chicken and rice and beans, our boys joined the chavos, as the boys of IPODERAC are known, in a variety of fun workshops. The boys bonded through salsa dancing, origami, cooking, karate and painting and our evening ended in a small soccer tournament.

Today began much the same as we worked on another three houses. The chavos are on a scholastic vacation so this morning they organized a huge soccer tournament and their all-stars challenged us to a much anticipated match. Captained by Jordan “Gary” Arredondo, we played to a heated 2-2 draw and fell to our hosts in penalty kicks. We resumed the workshops this afternoon and had a powerful reflection led by alumni leader extraordinaire, Brandon Rebboah.

Though we have only been at IPODERAC for three nights, our boys have created real bonds with their Mexican brothers. Every minute we are not working (and often while we are), I can hear our Bells speaking Spanish and enjoying the hospitality, lessons and spirit of our hosts. It’s been a remarkable start to our week here and we are very excited to deepen this experience.

Hasta pronto!

Gabriel, Tyler and Brandon

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2014 Lyme-Old Lyme Costa Rica: Heart in the Suitcase

Dios mio how quickly ten days can pass! We are now back in San Jose after a strong finish in our host village of Pueblo Nuevo and two fun days in Manuel Antonio, a charming beach town on the central Pacific coast. 

With a full day of work on Monday, under the steady guidance of our foreman José, we were able to finish our retaining wall in stellar fashion. That night we celebrated with our host families in typical Costa Rican style, belting out a wide range of karaoke songs on the heels of a delicious meal of arroz con pollo and a birthday cake in honor of our main man Fin McGannon who celebrated his 13th birthday yesterday. 

After a warm goodbye with our families Tuesday morning we were off to the beach but not before a stop over with Señor McGannon’s old friends who live in the town of Naranjo. Oscar and his lovely wife hosted us for a fantastic lunch and serenade, complete with a generous gift of locally produced coffee for all.

The last day and a half have been spent soaking up the sun, riding the waves, and admiring slow-moving sloths, manic monkeys and languid lizards. We’ve just arrived back in San Jose where we’ll be picked up tomorrow morning for a full day of white water rafting. I’ll be in touch again Saturday morning after the group has checked in for their flight home but for now I leave you with some words from Adi and a handful of photos from the past couple of days.

– Luke, Program Leader

It’s really hard to sum up this trip in a matter of words.

As I’m writing this, I’m sitting cross-legged on arguably the most comfortable bed I’ve been granted in the last week. “Corazón en la Maleta” is playing on repeat from my phone. It’s one of the few non-English songs that has been haunting our regular radio station, and is, admittedly, quite catchy. The title translates to something along the lines of “heart in the suitcase,” and while the summation of our travels is no poetic-slash-catchy-slash-radio-worthy single, I can say that at least a few of us have left a piece of our hearts in our “maletas.”

But not, you know, literally.

Or perhaps not in our suitcases, but in the places we’ve traveled; for already I miss the cozy breakfast loft of Monte Verde, my host mother’s sweet empanadas and coffee, the dust-covered “rainforest library” of Manuel Antonio…

That’s just how these things are.

Yet I’m certain that from each place, we’ve taken more than we’ve left. Improved Spanish? You bet, if only an extended Uno vocabulary (after all, the card game seemed a common favorite among the children of Pueblo Nuevo.) Souvenirs? Yeah, we’ve managed to collect some of those, too. More than anything, though, we’ve all gained some new appreciation. It varies from person to person: an appreciation for food that isn’t rice and beans (which I actually quite enjoy), a new appreciation for the relatively stable New England weather (or, on the other hand, the more frequent warmth of the Costa Rican sun,) or, as my roommates recently put it, an appreciation for “the comfort of a hot shower, family,” and a sense of home- wherever that may be.

– Adi

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National Volunteer Month: Programs for teens in Latin America

In honor of April, National Volunteer Month, here is a post by my friend, Neshama Abraham, who just went through the process of signing up her teenage daughters for summer volunteer programs.

PHOTO: courtesy Campfire Creative; Ben Lewis and Alex Alonso of San Jose, California, builds a retaining wall at the local school in Ollantaytambo, Peru during a two week service trip last summer.

PHOTO: courtesy Campfire Creative; Ben Lewis and Alex Alonso of San Jose, California, builds a retaining wall at the local school in Ollantaytambo, Peru during a two week service trip last summer.

Via the tranquilo traveler

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2014 Lyme-Old Lyme Costa Rica: Pura Vida

The wind was ridiculous. Add to that an intermittent rain that would blow sideways with impressive force, and our first full day in Costa Rica was off to a chilly start. The 18 intrepid travelers from Lyme-Old Lyme High School were busy navigating the cloud forest of Monteverde by zip line, an activity which had us flying over the dense canopy at an exciting clip. Granted the weather was less than ideal but, nevertheless, it was obvious from the beginning that this group was tougher than most.

There was no complaining. There were no pleas to cut the morning short and head back to the warmth of the hotel. Only smiles and the occasional yelp of joy as we whipped our way through the jungle.

We are now halfway through our time together in Costa Rica and two nights into our village stay in the tiny community of Pueblo Nuevo. We’ve settled into a nice routine that has us working most of the day on our service project at the local elementary school, first taking down a damaged retaining wall and then building the new one. Students have worked hard and well together, leaving Mr. McGannon, Ms. Carbon, and myself thoroughly impressed.

Today was the beginning of Semana Santa, or the week that leads up to Easter, and many students had the chance to attend mass or simply get out of town and enjoy a relaxing day with their host families. Tomorrow we aim to finish our project before departing Tuesday morning for the Central Pacific Coast.

Enjoy the following photos!

I look forward to updating you all again before the end of the program next Saturday.

Pura vida,

Luke Mueller


The group in front of our hotel in Monteverde.

We’re inside a tree!

The first batch of cement.

Mid-day exhaustion.

Un casado! A typical Costa Rican lunch.

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In Search of ‘Wild’ Costa Rica

For all those that love Costa Rica, this article is certainly worth reading.

Rain forest in Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Clockwise from top left: Rain forest in Corcovado National Park; a tapir in the park; a cabin at Bosque del Cabo Rainforest Lodge; spying on a toucan at the lodge. Credit Scott Matthews for The New York Times

Via NYTimes Travel By AMY HARMON

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2014 Gahanna Lincoln Costa Rica: Group Photo!

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2014 Starfish Volcanothon Guatemala: Our Journey

I want to share with you that the Starfish VOLCANOTHON was a great success. For 5 days I shared a unique experience with an excellent group of people who enthusiastically undertook an adventure full of excitement and energy.

The trip started in the beautiful colonial city of Antigua Guatemala, surrounded by mountains and majestic volcanoes, embellished with colonial Spanish architecture and cobblestone streets. For most participants it was their first time in this country, so walking around town was an adventure to admire.

The first night we had a welcome dinner at a Belgian food Restaurant where we had an amazing meal of Tilapia with mango, ginger and avocado sauce, and Boeuf Bourgignon with vegetables. The purpose of this dinner was to all meet as a group, where each one of us shared a little bit of ourselves, and why we enrolled for this trip.

The next day we boarded the bus heading to Panajachel, located 2 hours from Antigua at Lake Atitlan, to meet with the Starfish staff and students who expected with joy the travelers’ arrival. The first day in Panajachel, we participated in a Scavenger Hunt in the town where teams carried out missions to find cultural and historic scenes and capture them on camera. After sharing a delicious ice cream (a favorite Guatemalan treat!), some of the group returned for activities with the students, such as bracelet making and nail painting. This was a wonderful opportunity to connect with the girls and learn their personalities, share smiles, and begin to understand the lives that have a much better chance in life with the support of Starfish donors. In all, the day was a fun and memorable experience!

At night we gathered at the Starfish office, to hear more about Starfish and its impact on the community, particularly how it has changed the lives of the Starfish students. Starfish arranged activities to help break the barriers of language, where everyone introduced themselves and talked about why they have come on this journey. The group then enjoyed a traditional Guatemalan meal of “chuchitos” (a corn tamale stuffed with meat), beans, and chicken tacos.

On Saturday morning before the sun rose, we met outside the hotel for breakfast and locally-grown coffee, which provided much-needed energy. The sky began to change its color over the lake, a huge mirror reflecting blues and yellows, surrounded by protective volcanoes. Though there were some clouds, this did not dampen our spirits. Caught up in excitement, we boarded a boat to the base of the Volcano for our long hike. The trek to the summit of Volcan San Pedro stands at 9,908 feet. Looking up at the cone-shaped peak, rays of sun penetrated the clouds, giving us a light show projected on the mountains and water.

At 8:15 am we began to climb the volcano, prepared with bananas, oranges, and lots of water. The Starfish student group hurriedly began their walk, taking care of each other so that no one was left behind and supporting us along the way. We were surrounded by coffee plantations and avocado trees, reaching broken volcanic stone pieces that have been forming for many years. Luckily we had a guide to make the road easier during the ascent. We encountered several people coming down, wishing us the best on our trip.

After an hour and a half, we regrouped at a view point overlooking the town of San Pedro, a great time to take group and landscape photos. After our brief stop and re-hydration, we continued to the top, not knowing what awaited us on the road, leaving everything to the day.

As we climbed, we reach a forest of huge old trees, covered by dense clouds; the sounds of birds living in the area making the scene something magical. Every step forward is a step toward both personal and group success and joy.

If there is something rewarding in life, whether as a climber, runner, teacher, student, or whatever role we play, it is knowing that once you get to your goal, even when your mind tricks you into thinking you can’t make it, that you have overcome all personal, psychological, or physical obstacles along the way.

At the peak, everyone enjoyed the rest and appreciated the beauty of where we were. The connection between our group, the students, and guides grew, as we were sharing an excellent time for a talk, singing, dancing, eating, and regaining energy for the descent.

Once we clambered down, legs wobbly and feeling tired, a delicious hot lunch awaited us after such hard work. After the return to Panajachel, as a group we shared constructively our high’s and low’s of the volcano trip, while we splurged on a Japanese style dinner. There are more than just tortillas for visitors to Guatemala!

Sunday, the Starfish group had the opportunity to visit some of the student’s homes, creating a closer bond with them by learning more about their lives. Mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, and other extended family are united living under the same house, an arrangement that goes back many generations in the Tzutujil community. Families are very important in Guatemalan society, as they support each other through any challenges and every day activities. Though girls and women traditionally work in the home, with Starfish student families, everyone is supporting the empowerment and growth of their daughters so they can seek out a future with more opportunity. The group could see that their sponsorships made a big change in a whole family and in a community, even though they live thousands of miles away. The students and their families welcomed the visitors with open arms into their homes, with a humble smile of thankfulness.

Monday, back in Antigua, we visited local shops where the group purchased organic coffee from local coffee farmers and locally made chocolate flavored with cardamom, ginger, and orange. We had our last dinner of Guatemalan food – beef pepian, thick dark stew with vegetables and rice. As a group we talked about our experiences throughout the trip. Everyone was inspired by the families of the Starfish students and the struggles they face in their daily lives. They realized how much people have in North America and how little many people have here – lack of food security, formal education, and health services, often surviving under one roof in small homes with dirt floors and hazardous wood-burning stoves. We reflected on every aspect that creates a big difference between one country and the other, and how we can help to support them. The participants hope to invite more friends and family to be part of a program that empowers women in their futures, starting with the opportunity of receiving an education in a country with the highest rate of child poverty in Latin America, where so many families don’t have the resources to offer their children a better chance.

The volcano, a symbol of the challenge faced by these students, was conquered together.

It doesn’t matter how big or small the mountain is, what is more important is to make this journey a personal motivation to take firm steps and achieve our goals.

- Guillermo Montoya, Guatemala Country Director

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2014 SCH Senegal: Photo Blog

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2014 SCH Senegal: Building Community

For the past week we have been living with Senegalese host families in the village of Palmarin — a small fishing community on the Atlantic coast. Upon arrival, we immediately noticed the incredible generosity and kindness of the residents who live in this sandy, quiet West African village. Each host family warmly welcomed the students, offering them a bedroom with mosquito nets, bottled water, and authentic Senegalese cuisine. Although the students were a bit nervous going into their various families, it quickly became the most enriching — and challenging — experience of the trip.

With traditional food, bucket showers, endless amounts of sand, and a stark language barrier, our group did a magnificent job in adjusting to daily life in the village. The two boys, Josh and Evan, took little time to adapt to their new family and befriended a veritable entourage of Senegalese kids. It was a rare occasion indeed to find them without a group of children following them around the village, giving them high-fives and throwing a miniature American football to one another (an ingenious gift from Evan and Josh). Leah, Kat, and Tori immediately took to their family as well. In a similar manner as Josh and Evan, these three young ladies embraced their new home, offering to cook, clean, and care for the babies and young children. Since their family cooked lunch for the entire group everyday, we were able to witness how they skillfully adapted to the rhythm and cadence of Senegalese life. Betsy and Amelia also demonstrated a remarkable ability to adjust to their new surroundings. In fact, they became de facto English tutors for their host brothers and sisters, helping them study for their end of the quarter exams. Indeed, they established such a solid relationship with their family that, at then end of the week, they received traditional Senegalese regalia as a gift. Today, as we left for Pierre de Lisse, a quaint hotel on the coast, it was clear that all of the students were sad to leave their new families behind and were thankful for the opportunity to develop such meaningful relationships in such a short span of time.

Our time in Palmarin also included a number of different activities, such as an evening excursion to watch hyenas emerge from the mangrove forests, a number of enjoyable chariot rides on Senegalese “charrettes,” and a memorable service project with the Centre de l’Ecotourisme.

Each day, our group travelled a short distance to the eco-tourism center to clean, sand, prep, and paint its interior walls. Given the size of the project, as well as the difficulty of the work, the students showed an impressive ability to get the job done quickly and efficiently. Moreover, the Senegalese were impressed with their creative designs and color schemes, which received endless compliments and thanks from the village. On Sunday night — our last night — the community of Palmarin showed its gratitude for our hard work and joined us for a going away party. We danced, shared a communal meal, and expressed our gratefulness for the opportunity to work with such a great community.

In the days to come, we will relax on the beach, enjoy a clean shower, and prepare for our return to Dakar and, sooner than we’d like, to the United States. There is still much to experience and we are looking forward to the rest of the week.

– John and the SCH Crew

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China Releases Plan to Incorporate Farmers Into Cities

BEIJING — China has announced a sweeping plan to manage the flow of rural residents into cities, promising to promote urbanization but also to solve some of the drastic side effects of this great uprooting.

New apartment buildings for former miners and farmers in a suburb of Beijing.

New apartment buildings for former miners and farmers in a suburb of Beijing.

Click here to read more Via NYTimes

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