Esperanza. One word printed on a rubber bracelet in the outstretched hands of a young girl. Fog had cleared to reveal the rolling green hills of Yunguilla, a small community in Ecuador. Other children raced around the basketball court outside the schoolhouse, the school’s single teacher smiling on the sidelines as students from Clayton put their Spanish skills to work. And in the midst of it all, small hands reaching up to offer a Clayton teacher hope.
“I just felt this connection with this little girl that was really powerful and beautiful and I don’t think I will ever forget that,” said Deb Baker, a Literacy teacher at Wydown Middle School.
Baker, along with 35 students from Wydown Middle School and Clayton High School were part of the Spanish program’s foreign language trip to Ecuador over the summer.
Clayton has organized out-of-country trips since 2006. Earlier trips centered around tourism. But recently, this focus has shifted. Students now take part in community service work for most of the trip. Puerto explained that many Clayton kids already get to travel, saying, “Their families have the means to take them to other places in the U.S. and other countries, so that experience isn’t exactly unique for kids in Clayton, but the service aspect is.”
In Ecuador, students were immersed in the culture, touring monuments and historical buildings, visiting markets, eating meals prepared by locals, and even getting to try ice cream made with ice hauled from the top of a volcano. But what set this trip apart from other out-of-country trips was the element of community service. As part of this, students visited local schools.
These schools provided students with a warm welcome. At one school, students had to extend their stay because they were provided with cheese and fresh beans from the garden. “It surprised me how much generosity and compassion the people there had for you, anytime we would go to work in a community, everyone was so kind and genuinely sweet,” said Ella Cuneo, a sophomore at CHS.
The hospitality of locals was unlike anything students had experienced in the United States. There was simply a whole other standard for how people treated one another.
This was further demonstrated when the students’ tour guide, Christian, stopped the bus to pick up kids who were trudging miles to their house after a day at school. There he made sure they received soccer balls and a greeting from the students on the bus.
“If only we had that kind of model in our own community, where we lifted up someone because they just needed something,” Baker said.
The sense of hospitality and kindness of the people in Ecuador impacted the students visiting. They were exposed to new values and mindsets. In a modern world, understanding different points of view is essential. Baker expressed this idea, saying, “I think if we’re ever going to have a world where there is greater peace, then we can’t be afraid to get to know people who are different than we are.”
The Ecuador trip inspired students to walk into the lives of others and see their world. “Until you go up and take the time to talk to someone, you’ll never really know who they are and what they go through,” said Cuneo. Studying another culture from thousands of miles away is one thing, but experiencing it up close is something entirely different. Meeting with people and hearing their stories exposed students on the trip to a whole new world, one they hadn’t previously known outside of textbooks or the news.
During eight of the ten days of the trip, students took part in community service work. Aside from visiting schools, students helped farmers plant alfalfa and harvest potatoes, cleared trails, and planted trees to combat deforestation. “I hope students understand their power to make a difference, that even if you’re only at a school for a couple of hours, what kind of impact you can make,” Baker said.
Seeing the lives of the people of Ecuador changed how many students see poverty, as well as how they see happiness. “The people that we visited in the small village had almost nothing, but they were so genuinely happy,” Cuneo said. In the United States, there is a mentality that bigger is always better, but this is not really the case. Wealth is not essential for happiness.
Students’ experience in Ecuador pushed them to grow. In regards to changes she saw in Clayton students throughout the trips, Spanish teacher Heather Puerto said, “Language wise, I saw kids who were really shy and quiet kind of come out of their shell and try to speak more Spanish than maybe they would in class. I saw a lot of maturity.”
For many students on the trip, they completed their first ever community service projects, and for several it was their first time out of the country.
“There is very little point in studying a language if you are not going to use it to connect,” said Spanish teacher Micah Johnson. For Clayton students, connecting with locals helped push them to meet new people and gain language experience. Most kids on the trip had never had the chance to speak with native Spanish speakers before.
“Seeing those firsts for them and how it impacted their world view was pretty neat,” Puerto said.
This past trip to Ecuador was the biggest so far. With a mix of incoming 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th graders, a total of 35 students went on the trip with only six teachers to chaperone. This was the largest number of students and teachers from Clayton to travel out of the country in the last decade.
Out-of-country trips do not come without cost. $4000 is needed for just a single student to travel. After plane tickets, meals, transportation, a tour guide, and hotel rooms, the expense adds up. Finding the money isn’t easy for all students. Out of country trips are an amazing experience, and teachers are fighting to make them more accessible.
“There is something to be said for taking as many as are interested in going and are willing to go and getting as many kids to experience this as possible,” said Puerto. The Spanish teacher is currently fighting to expand the student cap for out of country trips. Traveling with a larger group comes with many benefits, as it creates more opportunity for connection between people.
Puerto, and other passionate teachers like herself are persistent in maximizing the amount of future Clayton students who get to have this incredible experience. Because of this opportunity, students will continue to find hope in unexpected places.