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People Who Build Schools: It Takes a Village

How a Vermont community rallied to build a school in Peru.

VERMONT'S WOODSTOCK UNION HIGH SCHOOL and Middle School (WUHSMS) provides public education for students who live in or around the picturesque colonial town of Woodstock. And, since 2005, it also has sent students, faculty, and parents to small villages in Peru to lend a hand with education there. It's a story of remarkable commitment.

The connection began in 2004, when the WUHSMS agriculture teacher John Hiers and Spanish teacher Keri Bristow were among some local families traveling to Peru on a learning vacation. The teachers asked their travel guides, two Yagua Indian brothers, to include a school visit.

One brother, Dr. Demetrio Villacorta, bases his travel business, Travel In Missions, in Atlanta, Georgia, while the other, Cesar Villacorta, runs Queen Adventures Tours & Expeditions from Lima, Peru. Customized educational travel is their specialty, so the Woodstock families' request was not a tall order for them.

On the last leg of their trip, after seeing Inca sites and jungle-trekking to Machu Picchu, the Vermonters arrived in the small farming and fishing village of Cabo Pantoja on the Amazon river. Yagua villagers turned out to meet the American families, play soccer and volleyball, sing kids' songs with them, and exchange gifts. "It was a lovely day," Bristow says.

The teachers had brought books and school supplies donated by Vermonters, but learned that the school building was washed away two years earlier by a storm-driven flood. In the farewell round of speechmaking, the president of the Cabo Pantoja parent-teacher organization stepped forward. “He spoke movingly about the need for a better school for their children," Bristow says, "and he made a direct plea to us to fund a school.”

Finding the Funding. Although they certainly couldn't write such a big check themselves, John Hiers explains that "an idea was born, modeled on Habitat for Humanity. We came home, made a budget of $18,500 (for building), and started to raise money." The Woodstock Union High School and Middle School's “Project Peru” called for a team of two dozen students, plus 8 parent/teacher/chaperones and a doctor, to pay their own way or find sponsors. They'd buy materials and hire skilled workers when they got there. Fundraising meant pancake breakfasts, talks at churches, pot-luck suppers, all done in and around Woodstock—steady but slow going.

Hiers' colleague, Laurel Tobiason, is very direct: "Fundraising is a bear," she says. "We did everything, from selling coffee on the town green and elementary students' collecting $900 from a raffle, to a jar on the counter at a local store." Her husband, Eric, a local builder, "twisted arms," and congregations took up special collections. They tried, but never caught the eye of major philanthropies or the national press.

So they did it on their own. It became a community obsession. "The local paper, the Vermont Standard, got behind us with extensive coverage," Hiers says. Then a single donor came up with a third of the budget and hope soared. “Some people gave $5, some people gave 2 or 3 times,” Hiers says. “Donations from hundreds of people,” he says, “and hundreds, no, thousands of hours of work” were poured into Project Peru 2005.

Life-changing Efforts. Cabo Pantoja got its school, but the story doesn't end there. "When we were helping build the school," Bristow says, "another village came to us." They need a school and a good well so they won't have to drink from the Amazon. Parasites in river water bloat their bellies, weaken their health, and drain their vitality. How could the good people of Vermont turn their backs on such need?

So for the Woodstock team, it was back home to fundraising agony all over again: The budget for Project Peru 2007 called for $25,000 for a flood-safe school and library plus $4500 for a clean well, and Woodstock raised it. A work team of Vermont kids and adults will be in San Juan de Huashalado from February 17 to March 4, 2007.

The kids of both villages benefit, but the adults even more. Bristow has learned "the gift of service can best be seen by the giver." Tobiason, a breast cancer survivor with lymph edema in one arm, agrees: "I never thought I could do so much again. But I fell in love with the experience. It changed my life!"

Anne Mollegen Smith, president of Qwerty Communications, Inc., often writes about education and social issues. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn, Winter 2007.

Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community.

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