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Giving back in Guatemala; student learns life lessons

Editor’s Note: Tensie Janine Taylor, is completing her Master’s degree at the University of Southern California.  She will graduate on May 16, 2014.
She and 39  other students spent their 10-day spring break in Guatemala building a principal’s office, replacing a roof on an elementary school, and teaching English to the children.

All college students eagerly await the start of their spring break. 

With the rigor of college with writing papers, participating in group projects, and reading numerous case studies, students can hardly wait to take a break from the demands of school. 

For some students, spring break means visiting family, taking a vacation with friends, or getting ahead in school work.  However, others decide to give back to less fortunate communities by participating in an alternative spring break service project.

Tensie Taylor, a second-year master’s student in Higher Education at the University of Southern California (USC), spent her March spring break in Guatemala.  On this 10-day service trip, Tensie, along with 40 students from various disciplines at USC, traveled to Retalhuleu, Guatemala to put a new roof on a classroom, to teach English to students, and to build an office for Principal Esther Vasquez at San Rafael Elementary School. 

This experience was life-changing Tensie said, making her further appreciate the opportunities in America and the manner in which her parents grew up.

Tensie and the USC students physically built Principal Vasquez’s office from the ground up. There were no machines, chainsaws, or cement trucks to expedite the completion of this project; everything was done by hand. 

To make the cement for the building, Tensie and the team sifted soil, poured cement mix on top of the soil, got water from the well to add to the mixture, and used shovels to stir it all together. 

Tensie describes this experience as hard and tedious work! There was not a machine to turn the cement mixture, everyone had to do everything by hand.

One of the hardest tasks was getting water from the well. 

Tensie and the team had to walk down a hill, use the pulley to fill 30 buckets of water from the well, walk back up the hill with the water buckets in hand, and finally pour the water onto the cement mixture. 

After completing this task, Tensie said she has a greater appreciation for how her parents grew up. 

“My Dad always made the joke that he had running water in his house:  He had to run down to the well to get it.  I always listened to this story, but it never resonated with me,” she said. “Now, after getting water from the well and realizing how difficult this task is, I have even more respect for my Dad because this is how he grew up.”

In addition to making cement, Tensie handed more than 200 cement blocks to the workers who hammered the blocks into place.  If a cement block was too big to fit, Tensie and the USC students used a pick and handsaw to cut down the block. 

With the construction of this project, a second project took place where USC students put a new tin roof on the classroom. To make the metal hooks to hold the roof in place, the students used pliers, a nail and a tree trunk. 

Tensie also taught English to the Spanish-speaking kids, and they learned numbers 1-10, parts of the body, and phrases. The students were eager to learn and immediately took out their paper and pencil to take notes, she said.

San Rafael Elementary School is very poor and and does not have plumbing.  Everyone had to use an outhouse, which was insect-infested and unsanitary. In addition, there was no toilet paper or a basin for them to wash their hands in. 

Instead, they were told by the USC trip leader to bring their own tissue and hand sanitizer. Having to use an outhouse again reminded Tensie of what her mother told her growing up. 

“My Mom grew up in Warren County, and she always said she had to use an outside toilet where there were insects, rodents, and sometimes snakes.  I can now say that I know how my mom felt because I too have experienced it, even if it was only short-lived,” says Tensie.

The principal, teachers, and kids were so thankful and appreciative of the work the USC students did for the San Rafael Elementary school. One Guatemalan student who was six years old said, “Thank you for putting a new roof on our classroom.  We now don’t have to get rained on while in class.” 

Tensie said she found his comment to be so heartbreaking. The main thought that continues to echo in her mind after returning to the United States is how blessed we are in America, she said.

“After this trip, I am even more passionate about sharing my experience with others and helping them see the importance and value in education. 

“The kids at San Rafael Elementary School had to learn in a classroom that was dampened with rain, had tables and chairs that were heavily dilapidated, and was infested with rats. Yet, these kids still came to school to get an education and did not complain about learning.

“There is no excuse as to why children in the United States cannot go to school, sit in a classroom, behave, learn, and do well! Classrooms in America have heat and air-conditioning, roofs that do not leak when it rains; students are fed breakfast and lunch, and they do not have to worry about learning in a rat-infested classroom. Every child should be appreciative of these opportunities,” said Tensie.

Tensie encourages every student to be thankful for the opportunities in America because there is a little boy or girl in Guatemala who would jump at the chance to have the things we often take for granted. Students need to start taking education more seriously, she said.

The average grade level students in Guatemala reach is 5th grade because the kids have to help their parents on the farm; they do not have the opportunity to go to school.  However, in America, students do have the opportunity to go to primary and secondary schools, and even on to colleges and universities.

“Never take education for granted.  It saddens me when I see kids misbehave in school, make failing grades, drop out of high school, or only get a high school diploma. 

With technology today and the numerous resources available to students, and after seeing Guatemala’s poor education system, students in the United States should make it a priority to become something in life and to be an asset to society.  It is time for students to begin taking education more seriously. 

“I want to be the person who helps them realize the significance of education,” said Tensie.

Tensie is the daughter of Robert and Levonia Taylor of Louisburg.

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