Spring break in Mexico gives Ivy Tech students a chance to give back
By Mike Leonard
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March 29, 2010
Online photo gallery: http://www.heraldtimesonline.com/gallery/n/1296
If you ask the students who took part in Ivy Tech’s Alternative Spring Break program if they’d rather have been on the beaches of Cancun instead of the dirt streets of Calnali, you’ll get the most polite “Are you kidding?” looks a person can muster.
Sleeping on cots in a cold hostel? Mixing building materials in the blazing sun out of sand, gravel, concrete mix and water? Seeing poverty and poor health care at a level beyond your imagination?
“It’s the most gratifying thing I’ve ever done,” said Mandi Jacobs, a radiation therapy student.
“Going there was not just about changing other people’s lives. It was about changing our lives, too,” said Tracy Ho, who is aiming for a pre-pharmacy degree.
“It teaches you that it really is more blessed to give than receive,” said Leah Kirts, an English and communications major who also went to Mexico last year. “We get so much more than we give.”
For the third year, Ivy Tech sent a contingent of a dozen students to Calnali, a village of about 3,000 in the impoverished south-central Mexican state of Hidalgo.
Thanks to generous underwriting, the students only had to pay $150 each to take the one-week, working spring break. But many spent a considerable amount of their own money, buying locally made souvenirs and blankets and other goods they left behind.
Based on past experiences, Ivy Tech conducted a shoe drive before the students went, because footwear, more than general clothing, is the one material item the residents there most need. The students and staff advisers arrived in Calnali with about 300 pairs in 14 large suitcases, and easily distributed them all. Plus the suitcases.
“Some of the children, if they had shoes at all, if they held them up you could see through them,” Jacobs said. “Some had shoes that the soles were literally falling off of.”
The Bloomington-based students worked with children in various ways but also contributed their fair share of backbreaking work, too. They mixed concrete and poured the floors for two homes, four bathrooms and put primitive siding up on one home.
They also got a taste of danger when Justin Adams, an education major, stepped on a snake at a construction site. “The lady there who was watching us told (fellow student) Lehua (Aplaca) it was poisonous,” he said. “I mean, when you know that the nearest actual hospital is four hours away by truck, it gets your attention. That woman watched us like a hawk after that.”
Members of the group who got together to talk about the trip at Ivy Tech last week said they all leaned on Aplaca for assistance because she was the only fluent Spanish-speaker in the group. “I thought they did pretty well with their hand signals,” she laughed.
Aplaca said she learned Spanish while serving on a mission assignment from her church in the Dominican Republic. And she also experienced an amazing “small world” experience when she met someone in Calnali who was born just miles away from her own native village in Hawaii.
The students who gathered last week agreed that everything about their experience changed the way they see the world. They can’t watch television now without thinking about how ridiculous most commercials are and how utterly unnecessary the consumer goods are that are being pitched.
They hear health care being debated and think back to the story of the young Mexican boy in the village who was born with a developmental problem in one of his testicles. “If somebody has a problem there, they just chop it off,” said Kirts. “They just castrated him because one of his testicles didn’t drop. They sent him home and said you have a little girl now.”
Less gloomy was the simple observation that the landscape in Bloomington is drab. “Everything is so colorless here,” said Jacobs. “But there, everything is colorful — the buildings, the crafts, the music!”
“Being immersed in a culture like that, even for a week, makes you grateful to be able to get a cup of water from the tap and be able to drink it,” said Adams.
“All of their water comes from this horribly polluted stream nearby,” said Donn Hall, a faculty sponsor. “They all have parasites from the water.”
The group members said it often broke their hearts to turn down offers from local residents to share meals with them in their homes. “The locals don’t understand how sick their food would make us,” Hall said. “At least this year, nobody in our group got sick.”
Chelsea Rood-Emmick, director of civic engagement at Ivy Tech, said she plans to continue fundraising and continue the program next year, both for the benefits to the host city and Ivy Tech’s students.
“Not being a residential campus, we don’t get to know each other all that well, and this is wonderful to come home and see fellow students with whom you’ve developed a bond,” said Jacobs.
“Having done this twice now, I can say it’s been the same both times,” said Kirts. “We walk away at the end of the week feeling like family.”
Ivy Tech students spent spring break building houses in a Mexican village. Courtesy photo
“Being immersed in a culture like that, even for a week, makes you grateful to be able to get a cup of water from the tap and be able to drink it.” -- Justin Adams
“Going there was not just about changing other people’s lives. It was about changing our lives, too.” -- Tracy Ho
“Having done this twice now, I can say it’s been the same both times. We walk away at the end of the week feeling like family.” -- Leah Kirts
“Some of the children, if they had shoes at all, if they held them up you could see through them. Some had shoes that the soles were literally falling off of.” -- Mandi Jacobs
Lehua Aplaca was the only member of the group who spoke good Spanish. David Snodgress | Herald-Times
Donn Hall was a faculty sponsor for the trip. David Snodgress | Herald-Times