by Tristan Turner
From June 28 to July 5, a group of seven MCHS students travelled to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico in the hopes of assisting local organizations that worked with low-income families, or built community engagement. These students travelled as the Morinville Interact Club, the separate youth-wing of the Morinville Rotary Club, and started planning for the trip in hopes of pursuing the goals of Rotary International: service, social justice and international citizenship. As President of the Morinville Interact Club, I hope to share some of the highlights from our trip and thank those who made our adventures possible.
While our first day (Saturday) wasn’t very productive, it was important for our students – as well as our organizers – to take a day to acclimatize ourselves to our new environment. Scorching heat – from a Canadian perspective anyway – compounded by above 90 per cent humidity was quite a bit to adjust to. As soon as we exited our plane onto the tarmac, the feeling of ‘Oh, it was definitely a mistake to go to Mexico in July’ was palpable amongst us travellers. On this first day, we checked ourselves into our hotel and did our best to settle in.
On Sunday we attended a service at the La Fuente Church. While the Interact Club – and Rotary as a whole – is expressly non-religious, most of the students wanted to attend, and we felt it would be an excellent way to engage with the community and figure out how we could best assist in community building. Afterwards, we discussed with members of the church and started to get our footing when it comes to social and cultural differences that had to be appreciated during our trip. The rest of the day we spent at the Bucerias market, an area with shops and small restaurants. We chose to travel here because we wanted students to gain an awareness of their surroundings and the community they would be assisting. As well, many of the students came out of this excursion with new or improved bartering skills.
Monday was spent with the Familias de la Esperanza (Families of Hope), an organization that is working to open a large living/community centre for families that are currently living in shacks within and around a closed garbage dump. The new facility is a 70-unit housing and community learning center that will be capable of housing, teaching and feeding 500 people. The structure and most internal construction work is – for the most part – completed in the new centre; however, before the centre can be opened, Familias de la Esperanza is waiting for negotiations with partners to complete on who will bear certain costs for operating the building. The students were given a tour of the incredible facility, complete with a commercial kitchen (sponsored by the Rotary Club), community hall, teen centre and classrooms for young children as well as adults to utilize. After the tour, we played soccer with a large group of teen boys that live near/in the dump. While – predictably – we were nowhere near as skilled as the local children were, it was incredible to have the opportunity to engage in the community in a way that was so universal in its appeal. After soccer, we played basketball and fared considerably better than we did in soccer, no doubt thanks to having Alyson Benson – a skilled basketball player from our school – with us. While this was a lot of fun, and we were so glad to share a moment of community and camaraderie with local teens, joy quickly turned to sadness as we returned to our hotel. We drove back along the roads where many of the kids we just played with lived. The scenes were difficult to accept; starving stray dogs wandering listlessly, children wandering through garbage and families living in weak shacks that were smaller than the hotel rooms we were returning to. This experience forced the students to acknowledge realities of poverty and inequality that exist in our world, and after this trip I personally resolved to devote much of my life to resolving much of the economic issues that surrounds this stark reality.
Tuesday was spent largely at the Casa Hogar Orphanage where we played with many children who were in the age range of three to 10. We ran about the courtyard with the children, playing Frisbee, ‘cops and robbers’ and even played a ukulele that MCHS Valedictorian Kyrsti McDonald brought along with her. We had an incredible time with the children, so incredible that we decided to return once again later in the week. Later on that day, we travelled to a new church that is being established by the original La Fuente Church. Here, they were building a new park for the community to utilize, and we all pitched in moving sand underneath playground equipmen and painting areas of the new church. Many who participated in the trip claimed this was their favourite moment of the journey, and I would most definitely be among them. We worked with local children who were thrilled to give a hand in the building of what would be there new park. Many kids came and helped us push wheelbarrows, shovel sand or whatever needed doing. While we knew little Spanish, and they little English, we ended up bonding with these children and laughed with them and got to know them as best we could, and by the end of the day, the children didn’t want us to leave. Just as we left, many children brought us local fruit as parting gifts, with some even began blowing kisses at our van as we drove back to our hotel.
Wednesday was known as ‘Rotary Day’ to our adventurers. We – somewhat begrudgingly – woke up early to attend a local Rotary Club meeting and witness how they operate compared to our Rotary Club of Morinville. On the day we attended, the role of President for the Club was handed over from one member to another, and we got to hear a translated version of their discussion on what their plans were for the coming year. Briefly, we each spoke to the club (a fair portion of the local members did know English) about what we traveled to Puerto Vallarta for, and what our plans were for the rest of the week, as well as introduce ourselves to their membership. We ended up realizing that in many ways their local club was identical to ours; they held their meetings in a very similar manner, they identified areas of community concern and acted on them (in the case of this club bringing proper roofing and fresh water to local schools), and they held the same international interest and focus that all Rotary Clubs share. This experience was enlightening, and we ended up exchanging contact information with some of the members of the local club so that we may hopefully do more work with them in the future, with many of them interested in starting an annual or semi-annual exchange with Vallartense teenagers and Morinville ones, an idea that we found equally exciting. Later that day we traveled to yet another La Fuente Church and helped to lay gravel on what would be a new area for children to gather during their summer children’s services. This was not easy work, and many of us were near collapse at the end of the day, but we spread all but a small chunk of the gravel on what would be a new cornerstone in a small community outside of Puerto Vallarta.
Thursday we returned to Casa Hogar to once again play with the children there. We had even more fun this time, bringing along crayons and colouring books with us. Between our two trips, we brought with us useful items that we donated to the orphanage, including toiletries and movies for the children. These items were kindly donated by the Morinville Guardian Drugs, and all of us are incredibly thankful for their generosity. The children and staff at Casa Hogar were grateful for our time and our gifts, but we were just as grateful to have had the opportunity to meet them and spend our time with them.
Friday was our ‘day off’ so to speak, and after a week of working, playing soccer and running around with children, we needed a break. Many of us were surprised we survived the week’s activities in such blistering heat, but we were so glad we had come along on this trip. By the end of our journey, the sentiment had changed from ‘why did we come here, I’m going to die in this heat’, to ‘why can’t we stay longer, I never want to return home’. Many of us celebrated that evening and got ourselves ready to leave at around noon the next day, exhausted and forever changed from our experience.
This trip was an incredible experience for all who attended, and I want to thank the students who came with me. We worked hard to raise the money that allowed us to attend, and we certainly worked hard once we arrived in Mexico, a place that many of us – myself included – had never been. While we didn’t raise all of the money necessary to fund the trip, we got very close, raising $6,000+ of our $8,000 goal.
Next, I would like to thank our community and our donors that made this trip a reality. In particular, I would like to thank Chris and Tracey’s No Frills for donating $500 to our trip, as well as the Morinville Rotary for funding our transportation in Mexico (along with providing us fundraising opportunities along the way), and, of course, The Green Bean and Kelly’s Bakery for hiring our club members to cater events – an opportunity that enabled us to work to fund much of our trip. Additionally, Sheldon Fingler of Infinite Event Services deserves thanks for giving us a discount in operating our school dance, a fundraising opportunity that pushed us much closer to our goal. Finally, our community as a whole must be thanked for donating bottles and buying frozen yogurt that made up much of our fundraising dollars for Mexico trip. To all of you, I offer my appreciation and thanks, and know that your support was well utilized and greatly treasured by our group of students.
Without our Interact Club organizers however, none of this could have been possible. I extend my gratitude to Kathy Sandmaier and Rosie Kruhlak for working tirelessly throughout our school year to organize our trip and support our fundraising initiatives. They have become great friends of mine throughout this process, and I am sure many future Interact Club groups will come to enjoy their leadership and support.