Published Mar. 31, 2011
Springfield, Ohio –It’s warm and sunny — it’s spring break, after all — and Kristyn Vergauwen, class of 2013 from Oakville, Conn., and Martin Brahier, class of 2013 from Salzburg, Austria, are wearing sunglasses and short-sleeved shirts. But they’re not relaxing on any beach. They are digging a two-feet-deep trench — with a pickaxe and shovel.
They are two of 14 Wittenberg University students who spent their spring break helping to build a new community of homes in El Salvador. The students, along with two parent leaders and Wittenberg Pastor Rachel Tune, traveled with Thrivent Builds Worldwide, a partnership of Thrivent Financial for Lutherans and Habitat for Humanity International. The homes will be part of the Getsemaní community in the district of Ahuachapán, which will ultimately consist of approximately 100 earthquake-resistant homes built by Habitat El Salvador. Thrivent has committed to build 15 homes in 2011.
“It was a lot of physical labor, and we were worn out at the end of every day,” said Mikaela Ruppert, class of 2013 from Pierce, Neb. “But you felt really good about what you were doing to help these families.”
In one week, they laid the foundation for two homes and, with no machines on site, it was a feat that was even more difficult than normal. Walking onto the site on Day 1, the students faced a cleared area of nothing but dirt. With just hand tools and under the guidance of local masons, they dug trenches, poured and tamped down the first layer of “terra blanca,” mixed stones, water and more terra blanca on the ground to make concrete, and poured the concrete into the trenches. They tied rebar (reinforced steel bars) and pushed a lot of wheelbarrows of dirt and concrete around.
“On the last day, the two Saras (Reilly, class of 2013 from Dublin, Ohio, and Crowell, class of 2013 from Cincinnati, Ohio) and I looked around in amazement — we had worked on every aspect of the foundation,” said Stephanie Brandstetter, class of 2014 from Wyoming, Ohio. “We had never done anything like it before.
As they worked, the students had a chance to get to know the four generations of the Buenos family — the family who would ultimately live in these homes. For many students, getting to know the people, and especially the many children, was a real highlight of the trip.
“This trip gave us real cultural insights and helped us understand the people in a completely different way,” said Ben Fricke, class of 2011 from Kemberg-Radis, Germany.
Though many students spoke some Spanish, most discovered that you did not have to speak the language to communicate. Playing simple games and coloring with the children, eating meals together and participating in an Ash Wednesday service with Americans and Salvadorans, they formed bonds despite the language “barrier.”
The trip was led by Bonnie and Joe Reilly, parents of trip participant Sarah Reilly. Bonnie and Joe had already taken three trips with Thrivent Builds to El Salvador helping to build a similar community in Santa Ana known as Villa Esperanza. But they had never traveled with a group of college students. For them, it was exciting to watch how the experience changed the students.
“The person that left to go on this trip is not the same one that came back,” Joe said.
According to trip leader, University Pastor Rachel Tune, having such experienced leaders for the trip made all the difference.
“I am so grateful to Bonnie and Joe for taking a week out of their lives to help make this trip possible,” she said. “They were amazing to work with.”
The goal of Thrivent Builds Worldwide is to do more than build homes. They partner with the local leaders and homeowners to build entire communities — Villa Esperanza contains 75 homes and a community center — and support them as they develop training in community leadership, health, entrepreneurship and other life skills to help them thrive in the future.
The students had a chance to worship in Santa Ana in the remaining building of the Lutheran church, which was almost completely destroyed by a 2001 earthquake (Habitat El Salvador hopes to work with this very poor congregation to rebuild) They also spent the final day in the country enjoying some well-deserved rest and relaxation at the beach. But it is clear that working side-by-side with each other and the Buenos family made the greatest impression.
“We were participating in something truly greater than ourselves,” said Liza Bergner, class of 2013 from Bartlett, Ill.
At the end of the week, despite blistered hands, muddy boots and tired bodies, the group was exhilarated. Most had never expected to fall in love with the country or come to care so much for people they had only met a week earlier. And they certainly never expected that a week could change them so profoundly. But as they headed to the airport at sunrise, each vowed to find a way to get back.
Gathering together in Wittenberg’s Benham-Pence Student Center three weeks after the trip, they laughed as they shared the events and people of that week. They remembered the slower pace and freedom from cell phones. Many pledged to limit their technology use for one day every week. Some, like Will Herrmann, class of 2012 from West Chester, Ohio, vowed to “embrace life and live it in a more meaningful way.”
Whatever their feelings, all echoed Brandstetter’s statement that, “None of us would trade this experience for anything.”
Like many Wittenberg students, this group shares a passion for service. And like others who have opted for “alternative” spring trips, this group brought new meaning to the definition of “fun” on spring break.
“It was truly a privilege to take this group of outstanding young people,” said Bonnie Reilly. “I have hope for humanity because of these 14 young adults who did Wittenberg proud.”
Written By: Gabrielle Antoniadis
Photos By: Rachel Tune